It is surprising that it took so long for the 1977 Tony winner “Annie” to join the live TV musical wave that began with NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” back in 2013. One of the most popular shows of the past 50 years — previously inspiring two big-budget movies and a 1999 TV adaptation — “Annie” is a staple of touring companies and regional theaters, and has received multiple Broadway revivals. The material still plays.
Last night’s three-hour “Annie Live!” on NBC — directed by Lear deBessonet and Alex Rudzinski, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo — did not radically reimagine or reinterpret the original show, adapted by the book-writer Thomas Meehan, lyricist Martin Charnin and composer Charles Strouse from Harold Gray’s long-running comic strip, “Little Orphan Annie.” But neither did this version disappoint in any significant way.
If anything, after another hard year of Covid restrictions and political upheaval, it was a treat to watch a lot of talented people gather in one place to sing and dance their way through a bipartisan fable about a ridiculously rich industrialist — and proud Republican — who becomes a better-rounded person when he takes in a good-hearted orphan who has compassion for the underprivileged. Give a lot of credit to NBC’s two winning leads: Celina Smith as the wide-eyed waif Annie and the crooner Harry Connick Jr. as the bossy Daddy Warbucks.
The musical’s story remains appealingly simple. After the plucky Annie defies the cruel Miss Hannigan (Taraji P. Henson) at her spartan group home, she draws the attention of Grace (Nicole Scherzinger), who invites the 11-year-old to spend two weeks over Christmas with the gruff billionaire Oliver Warbucks. The grateful kid helps the old man appreciate the joy his money can bring; but before the two can live happily ever after they have to fend off a pair of grifters, Rooster (Tituss Burgess) and Lily (Megan Hilty), who are in cahoots with Hannigan.
This TV version was staged in front of a small studio audience rather than in a big theater; and the more confined space may have contributed to the occasional gaffes in blocking, with actors or crew members momentarily obstructing shots. In general, the visual side of the show felt a little repetitive, relying on many of the same tight frames and sparse sets, over and over.
There were a few flourishes though, including a rousing rendition of one of the show’s best-known songs, “Hard Knock Life,” performed by children doing dynamic gymnastic moves. The number “N.Y.C.” also was a wonder, with a big chorus of dancers and singers performing in front of colorful backdrops, conveying both the splendor of 1930s New York and the ravages of the Great Depression.
The supporting performers kept the evening from slipping too far into stodginess. Henson followed in the footsteps of great scenery-chewing Hannigans like Carol Burnett and Nell Carter, playing the character as a chaotic force of malevolence. Burgess and Hilty seemed to delight in putting unexpected spins on their lines, keeping each other spry. And Scherzinger had one of the evening’s highlights with the dance number “We Got Annie,” a song that originated in the 1982 movie as a showcase for that production’s Grace, Ann Reinking, who died last December. Scherzinger’s version was likely an homage — and a sweet one.
“Annie” has always been something of a Broadway underdog. When it opened at what was then called the Alvin Theater (today the Neil Simon Theater), its sunniness stood out in a decade filled with glummer and more adult-themed musicals.
The show has been criticized over the years for taking so many liberties with Gray’s original comics, which were weighted more toward rollicking adventure than to domestic drama — and which often served as a platform for its author’s right-wing politics. While the musical venerates President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (played in the NBC production by Alan Toy), Gray actually railed against the New Deal in the strip.
Yet in a larger pop culture context, the original “Annie” arrived right on time, just as movie theaters filled with the likes of “Rocky,” “Star Wars” and “Superman,” and TV viewers fell for “The Muppet Show” and “Happy Days.” Simultaneously triumphant and nostalgic, “Annie” hit a similar sweet spot.
So like much of the feel-good entertainment aimed at Generation X, “Annie” has endured — even with its quaint references to radio stars and the tennis player Don Budge. That may be why, aside from the multiracial cast and a pointed, crowd-pleasing, post-pandemic mention of “Broadway getting back on its feet,” NBC’s “Annie” stayed pretty firmly stuck in the past. It was not, in any overtly apparent way, a comment on the modern world.
Nevertheless, it did resonate when Smith’s Annie sang, in “Maybe,” about the fulfilling life her real parents might be living without her. And it will always be hard not to be moved by the signature hit, “Tomorrow,” which promises a better day.
So perhaps it was only proper that this musical about earnest, plain-spoken yearning arrived on TV in 2021 — when it would hit the hardest — instead of in 2013. This show may be dated by design, but when it’s clicking, it can still clear away the cobwebs and the sorrow.