"Republicans, too, Oliver! Sing!"
This order, given by President Franklin Deleano Roosevelt to millionaire Oliver Warbucks may be the most unusual, fantasy-like element of Annie, the Depression-era fable packed to the brim with fantasies currently in performances at the Palace Theater.
Annie, based on Harold Gray's comic strip Little Orphan Annie, is an unabashedly optimistic musical that extols the virtues of determination and kindness and may seem out of place in a city just ravaged by and still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. But this production, directed by James Lapine and with a book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, still resonates - perhaps even more strongly than it would have before - eliciting numerous smiles, cheers and "awwwws" from the audience.
Despite the 35 years since its first production, the timeliness of Annie is undeniable. Set in Depression-era New York, with "Hooverville" shacks set up under the bridge by homeless people, the numerous comments about President Herbert Hoover's impact on the economy resonate strongly with today's audience. The sets, by David Korins, cleverly resemble turning pages of a book and emphasize both the claustrophobic shabbiness of the orphanage Annie lives in as well as the spacious luxury of Warbucks' mansion, highlighting the already elevated disparity between the rich and poor. The only aspect of the production that detracts from the fantasy of New York is the unfortunate decision to have the orphans speak with exaggerated Brooklyn accents that severely detract from the charm of the little girls onstage.
And they are charming. Madi Rae DiPietro, Georgi James, Junah Jang, Tyrah Skye Odoms, Taylor Richardson, and Emily Rosenfeld are all excellent, especially Rosenfeld's Molly, who effortlessly steals almost every scene she is in, especially when she faces off against the villainous orphanage manager Miss Hannigan, played by Katie Finneran in an unfortunately disappointing performance.
Finneran, an outstanding comedic performer who was a highlight of the 2010 production of Promises, Promises, emphasizes Miss Hannigan's alcoholism and desperation for a man to take care of her, but she does not utilize any of the potential for vaudevillian or slapstick comedy that exists within the character. She is far too villainous, and she appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown for much of the show, especially during the song, "Little Girls," which is staged surrealistically with the orphans dancing behind Finneran onstage. While this could humanize Hannigan if executed differently, it merely confuses the perception of the character and does not utilize Finneran's extensive talents. When she joins forces with her brother Rooster (a very good Clarke Thorell, who I wanted to see more of) and Lilly (J. Elaine Marcos), in the famed song "Easy Street," her hesitance in planning Annie's "disappearance" is visible, but not nearly enough.
As the titular character and bane of Hannigan's existence, Lilla Crawford gives a remarkably assured and confident performance as the plucky optimist. She possess a clear, ringing belt well-suited to Annie's signature song "Tomorrow," and it is easy to see why Warbucks and his staff all become so enchanted by her. As Warbucks' private secretary who secretly adores her boss, Brynn O'Malley is excellent, and Warbucks, played by Anthony Warlow, gives a believable depiction of a lonely old man to a loving father. His singing voice is outstanding, giving a particularly moving rendition of "Something Was Missing," and he is also an agile dancer, easily matching the youthful Crawford in "I Don't Need Anything But You." And Merwin Foard is clearly having a fine time as President Roosevelt, ordering his cabinet to harmonize on "Tomorrow" while planning the New Deal.
Packed to the brim with old-fashioned melodies, Annie offers great potential for creative choreography, but Andy Blankenbuehler has made some unusual choices for this production, especially in "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," where the orphans spend half the song playing dress up rather than actually dancing. But Susan Hilferty's period costumes and Donald Holder's lighting also emphasize the beauty of optimism, which, as the orphan with the heart of gold, the lovely Crawford personifies perfectly.