The answer, in a word, is: a lot. The question being, how much does Jane Lynch -- the antagonistic cheerleader coach of Glee -- add to the heretofore sleepy revival of Annie at the Palace?
That Lynch is able to embrace the role of Miss Hannigan, the hard-hearted orphanage matron who prides herself in torturing her scrawny charges (in general) and that spunky red-haired moppet (in particular), is not exactly a surprise. Lynch is one of those Chicago actresses, her years of toil including a stint with Second City. She found a niche creating memorable characters in movies and on television -- her performance as a dog handler in Christopher Guest's 2000 film Best in Show remains ferociously funny -- until the first episodes of Glee made her a full-fledged star in 2009.
Lynch commandeers the Palace stage, and the show, from the moment she first teeters into view sporting a hangover so severe that every little-girl whimper seems to rattle her dentures. Lynch's height only intensifies the humor; she towers over the kids, and knows how to use it to her advantage. In fact, she seems -- with the help of the shoe department -- to be taller than everyone including Daddy Warbucks. Lynch appears never to have met a laugh line she didn't know how to attack, and she does a bang-up job on her two songs ("Little Girls" and "Easy Street"). So good that you kind of wish the staging of these numbers had been reconceived for the occasion; Lynch is clearly capable of getting a lot more out of the material than her predecessor in the role. First time on Broadway, presumably first time in a musical comedy, no matter. Lynch is a natural.
Which brings us to the production itself. Director James Lapine did a constructive job on this Annie, discarding Martin Charnin's original staging -- which had grown stale over thirty years of replication -- and giving us something new. Likewise the scenery by David Korins. Andy Blankenbuehler's choreography for this production, alas, remains a big black eye. Annie calls for exuberant musical comedy dancing; the revival gives us socially significant modernistic steps for "forgotten men," along with odd and ineffective stuff for the kids. (The talented group of orphans -- both when the show opened in November and now -- manage to make "Hard Knock Life" and "You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile" score despite their choreography.)
While the current Annie is easily superior to the show's last two New York visits--with Nell Carter at the Martin Beck in 1997, with Kathie Lee Gifford at Madison Square Garden in 2006--this revival had an enormous hole at center. Miss Hannigan, the outsized harpy who controls the entire affair by being so damned funny, wasn't. For reasons unknown, Lapine and his producers settled on Katie Finneran, the two-time Tony Award winner who was rolling-in-the-aisles funny in revivals of Noises Off and Promises, Promises. But as the desperate, over-the-hill, ready-for-the-glue-factory Hannigan, the 41-year-old Finneran was playing the wrong part in the wrong show. What could they have been thinking, one wonders.
They found a wonderful Warbucks in the person of Anthony Warlow, but what Annie really needed was someone like... well, Jane Lynch. Now it's got her, and oh what a difference it makes. Until July 14, at least, when she's scheduled to depart.