Wednesday, November 14, 2012

NYC Theater Roundup: ‘Annie’ Returns to Broadway, ‘Sorry’ Off-Broadway

Book by Thomas Meehan; music by Charles Strouse; lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed by James Lapine; choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Performances through March 31, 2013
Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, New York, NY

Written and directed by Richard Nelson
Performances through November 25, 2012
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Crawford and Sunny in Annie (photo: Joan Marcus)
If one musical is the poster girl for old-fashioned Broadway, it’s Annie, a huge hit back in 1977 and now better known to people who’ve never seen the show for “Tomorrow” and “It’s a Hard Knock Life”: the latter sampled by Jay Z for his 1998 hit “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem).”

Although John Huston’s 1982 movie version was a financial and artistic disaster, Annie remains, in its unpretentious way, one of our most charming family-friendly musicals. In James Lapine’s new Broadway staging—which tries too hard at times to bring a contemporary edge to its essentially sweet story of the little orphaned red-head and the billionaire she guilelessly tames—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as sentiment trumps cynicism.

Lapine doesn’t hammer home parallels between the show’s Depression era that separates haves from have nots—with a hard-working Democratic president, FDR, trying to close the gap—and a similar situation obtaining today. Instead, he smartly concentrates on the relationship between Annie and Daddy Warbucks, brought to life in spot-on performances by newcomer Lilla Crawford, with her booming voice and refreshing uncutesy stage manner, and Australian Anthony Warlow, whose Warbucks is less a caricatured Koch brother than a lonely man who hopes that money can buy him love.

The supporting cast is led by an adorable mutt named Sunny as Annie’s beloved stray dog Sandy. A formidable troupe of young girls includes the criminally cute Emily Rosenfeld, who even outpaces her talented fellow orphans. Too bad that Katie Finneran provides another unimpressively blustery performance as Miss Hannigan, the hated head of the orphanage. In this usually foolproof comic role, Finneran gives it her all, which, as always, is both too much and not enough.

While Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is merely serviceable—and at its best when the orphans are front and center—David Korins’ silhouetted sets of New York buildings and bridges and storybook recreation of Warbucks’ gilded mansion are inspired. Charles Strouse’s music, one of the last Broadway scores crammed with miraculously tuneful melodies, contains songs that are not merely hummable gems but are at the service of the story: their greatness lies in their utter simplicity, just like Annie.

Sanders, Robins, Cameron-Smith, Plunkett in Sorry (photo: Joan Marcus)
Richard Nelson, in his plays about the Apple family—That Hopey Changey Thing, Sweet and Sad and now Sorry—has done the near-impossible for an American playwright. He writes about political matters without separating them from personal ones; in fact, he integrates them so well that we never feel we’re being preached or condescended to: in fact, these conversational plays make us feel we’re simply in the company of a family having uncommonly intelligent discussions at—in the case of Sorry—the breakfast table.

The Apples—sisters Barbara, Marian and Jane, and brother Richard—are together on Election Day 2012 to do two things: talk about what’s transpired in our country since Election Day 2010 (when Hopey Changey was set), notably how disappointing—if still hopeful—President Obama’s first term has been; and decide whether their beloved uncle Benjamin, suffering from the first stages of Alzheimer’s, should be taken to a nearby rest home, since it’s too difficult for Barbara and Marian to take care of him at home.

Nelson’s dialogue is pointed and poignant; after three of these plays, we have really gotten to know the Apples, and can shed tears or laugh along with their conversations about the state of our nation, the state of New York—Nelson’s script is up to date, mentioning the effects of Hurricane Sandy alongside our endless election cycle—and the state of their family.

Nelson’s smart, simple direction lets his five peerless performers—a sixth character, Jane’s boyfriend Tim, is off doing a play in Chicago (actor Shuler Hensley is actually starring in another off-Broadway play and was unavailable—he’s supposed to return for Nelson’s final Apple play)—shine in their compelling naturalness. Jay O. Sanders (Richard), Maryann Plunkett (Barbara), Laila Robins (Marian), J. Smith-Cameron (Jane) and Jon Devries (Benjamin) are so in tune with one another that it’s unfair to single out anyone: they combine for a remarkable ensemble performance as the Apple family.

If Richard Nelson wants to keep checking in on them indefinitely, I’ll go along for the ride.

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