11/09/2012 08:24 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

First Nighter: Annie Back on Broadway But a Bit Tired

Broadway is for little girls. Or at the very least, a compelling argument can be made for that statement. Look, Wicked is still pulling them in. Matilda is brilliant in London and -- unless there's an unforeseeable sea change -- will be the same in Manhattan come spring. Cinderella, which features slightly older girls but nonetheless has enormous appeals for younger ones, is due in February.

And now just as prominently at the Palace is that long-time favorite Annie, revived on the Great White Way for the second time since its initial 1977 production. The first return was 1997, and now, 15 years later, an entire generation of target-audience theater-goers is with us, which has to be how the producers suss it out.

For those newbies as well as for their parents, not much of what the critics have to say is likely to deter them from what is at best -- and at worst -- a competent mounting of the Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin-Thomas Meehan enterprise, first directed by Charnin with, it was widely rumored, an assist from Mike Nichols.

The part of the return that continues to stand up is the likable, hummable score, which includes "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," "Easy Street" and most famously "Tomorrow." That outburst highlights the comic strip heroine's optimism near the action's beginning and is reprised in this version's most delightful sequence -- a meeting of cabinet members and advisors in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's oval office.

The lead question for an Annie outing is how does this Annie fare, and Lilla Crawford fares well enough as she leaves the orphanage where she was abandoned eleven year earlier to take up a two-week Christmas residence in a swanky David Korins-designed Fifth Avenue mansion owned by bald-headed Oliver Warbucks. He's Anthony Warlow, imported from Opera Australia for his bravura voice, affable manner and possibly for his surname's first syllable.

Young Crawford, whom some might gauge a smidge too advanced for the 11-year-old tough-talking do-gooder, belts "Tomorrow" as if there's no tomorrow, but whether she's truly thinking about what she's singing raises some doubt. Not enough, though, to do any damage to her delivery.

On the plus-plus side Crawford has a no-nonsense, Brooklynese manner that also lends ballast in dealings with her raucous orphanage pals (Emily Rosenfeld, Georgi James, Taylor Richardson, Madi Rae DiPietro, Junah Jang, Tyrah Skye Odoms) and at Daddy Warbucks's classy squat with exec secretary Grace Farrell (Brynn O'Malley) and head butler Drake (Joel Hatch).

The next question in any Annie concerns the comic-cruel Miss Hannigan role. This frame, it's the usually divine Katie Finneran, who owns deserved Tonys for the most recent revivals of Promises, Promises and Noises Off. No third Tony seems to be waiting in the wings for the work here -- or perhaps "overwork" is the better word. Finneran's Miss Hannigan is a mean drunk without the inherent wink the musical's primary villain needs. Most egregiously, she plays the wonderful comedy song "Little Girls" in such a state of garbled inebriation that she loses every laugh.

Others not rising to their usual high standards don't extend to Susan Hilferty, whose costumes are swell, but do extend to director James Lapine and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Neither of them seems cut out to deal with a orphanageful of rowdy tykes and their well-meaning or ill-meaning elders.

Lapine brings little to the scenes involving Miss Hannigan's cohorts, brother Rooster (Clarke Thorell, who does nicely anyway) and brother's sidekick Lily (J. Elaine Marcos). Blankenbuehler rises to some vivacity with his work but looks to have a penchant for getting the song-and-dance cast into circles that eventually register as repetitive.

An unfortunate result of a so-so Annie is that the libretto's deficiencies -- masked in more inspired productions -- are exposed. The plot is meager with the main complication -- Annie's adoption by Daddy Warbucks endangered by a Hannigan-Rooster-Lily plot -- doesn't have much pizzazz. It unfolds for about five suspenseless minutes -- and among more of the overabundant lame Meehan jokes.

Another aspect starting to plague the until-now fabulously Warbucks-ian property is its being irrevocably a Depression period piece. When the parents of some of the children in the audience don't look old enough themselves to have seen the 1977 undertaking, it's no surprise that a song about Hoovervilles, a joke with a "New Deal" punchline, a spoof of a 1930s radio variety show, and characters based on Harold Ickes (Gavin Lodge). Frances Perkins (Jane Blass) and even F. D. R. (Merwin Foard, and very good) fall on unknowing eyes and ears.

In this production, Sandy, the homeless dog Annie rescues (and whose name has fresh connotations this week), is played by Sunny, a devil-may-care pooch giving one of the enterprise's more satisfying performances.