Brooklyn’s spiffy new Barclays Center provided the venue last month for a most unlikely "Annie" singalong. During the eight-night run of concerts that heralded its opening, the rapper Jay-Z featured his musical-sampling breakout hit "Hard Knock Life," proclaiming his ascent to street royalty over meek beginnings.
It was startling how many in the crowd, with no prompting, sang along to the familiar hook, most of whom had paid upwards of $40 a ticket to attend and at some point in the night paid between $7.50 and $9.50 for a beer, lamenting their deprivation and general abuse. ’Stead of treated, we get tricked. ’Stead of kisses, we get kicked.
The sympathy tug elicited by those orphans was expertly applied to Jay-Z’s portrayal of his young life on the streets, but it all started with Charles Strouse’s 1977 musical based on the 1920s comic strip about another child’s hardscrabble existence.
"Little Orphan Annie" used its titular plucky orphan to comment on national politics, while the musical version plucked at America’s heartstrings as Annie was found by billionaire Oliver Warbucks (back when being a billionaire really meant something) but still pined for her mother and father.
The revival now playing at the Palace Theater hits those notes fairly familiarly but deserves a modicum of respect for playing up the obvious parallels between Depression-era New York and double-recession-era New York.
News footage of hungry out-of-work Americans, some of whom only have their anger to keep them warm? Check. Democratic president attempting to rule by consensus and struggling to have his authority recognized? Check. (Grumpy billionaire prompted to invest in job creation? Well...)
The timing of this revival may hit home more than investors planned due to the unfortunate parallel between the Hoovervillites’ makeshift shanties and the scenes of devastation wrought by a hurricane named -- hey, Officer -- Sandy. (And that joke about then-Mayor LaGuardia’s height! Bloomberg may want to skip this one.)
Warbucks’ house, the work of scenic designer David Korins, resembles a bank or event hall more than a house for one man, even a fabulously rich one. Then again, we didn’t see the car elevator.
After an unforgettable Tony Award-winning interlude as a barfly in 2010’s "Promises, Promises," Katie Finneran continues in that vein as the orphanage head Miss Hannigan, a woman equally terrifying and pitiable in her hope that some man -- the laundry man, her brother, Warbucks himself -- will come along and save her. But there’s nothing undisciplined about Finneran’s performance; she knows exactly to what she steers, and even when careening around the stage a sense of relief flutters around her every move.
She steers this show, making even the powerful Warbucks (Anthony Warlow, Broadway debut) seem small and muting at times excessively winky Clarke Thorrell ("Hairspray," "Mamma Mia!") as her brother Rooster while they scheme to defraud Warbucks and dispose of the inconveniently cute little girl in the process.
As Annie, Lilla Crawford commands the stage but teeters on the edge of grating, and she and her fellow orphans could hold their own in a bad-accent-off against the college student ensemble of the nearby "Newsies." (Emily Rosenfeld’s Molly is the best and most subtle of the orphans, whose face, often knit in puzzlement, looks plainly natural instead of exaggerated and hammy.)
Most of the crowd during the preview performance this critic took in seemed too young to remember the show’s original Broadway run, or the 1982 film version starring a terrifying Carol Channing as we-love-you-Miss-Hannigan. (That one cut the guts from "Annie"’s already sparse political content, but it did include a helicopter rescue!)
This revival restores the musical numbers cut from that movie, including the somewhat dreary Act II finale "We’ll Have A New Deal For Christmas," but something’s still missing from its dutiful progression of scenes and spectacles. Somewhere in the massive sets and bombastic orchestration, the little girl who causes all the struggle, and with whom we are to sympathize, is given a series of shouty scene-buttons and no soul.
There’s no moment in which Annie can just be a little girl; she is always acted upon, and crowded out. The character is no Newsie, hyperbolically gripping her fate into her own hands, but the production seems geared to protecting her against the unguarded eyes of the audience.
Let us get to know "Annie" again, but let us get to know her honestly. Otherwise, her suffering sounds like just another refrain.
"Annie" is enjoying an extended run at the Palace Theater, 1564 Broadway, at 47th Street. For tickets and info, cal 877-250-2929 or visit Anniethemusical.com.