PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Annie; Another Sandy Hits NYC
By Harry Haun
Meet the first nighters at the opening of Broadway's new production of Annie.
Arf, arf! Who's there? Sandy, the Wonder Dog of Broadway, that's who — back for a third Main Stem stay with Annie, who, befitting Daddy Warbucks' adopted daughter, settled Nov. 8 into a palace — The Palace — for what looks like a long winter's nap.
If this 35th-anniversary revival proves anything, it proves how well-crafted and crowd-pleasing this musical can be. And the three wise men responsible were present to take well-deserved bows at the curtain: Charles Strouse, 84, who wrote the still-exuberant, buoyant and varied music; Martin Charnin, 77, who matched those melodies with dead-on, delightful lyrics — and (back in 1977) directed the whole shebang; and Thomas Meehan, 83, whose crackerjack jokes and heart tugs remain ageless.
They created the show against a monstrous maelstrom of naysayers. If there is a worse premise for a musical than Harold Gray's daily newspaper comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie," which ran from 1924 to 2010, it would be "Don Quixote" or The Declaration of Independence. But their persistence paid off and enjoyed as great a success as those other two inspirations (need I mention the titles?).
What's different after this new Broadway edition is its vision, executed by James Lapine and Andy Blankenbuehler, taking over the directorial and dancing reins from Charnin and the late Peter Gennaro. Since Lapine somehow never saw Annie in any of its other lives and productions, this could be definitely be called "a fresh vision."
Our red-headed 11-year-old heroine and her adorable mutt, Sandy, are orphans of the Depression storm, circa 1933. They meet up in a hobo camp named Hooverville under what looks like the Brooklyn Bridge, and they part just as quickly, each pursued by a different set of authority figures. Annie winds up in an Oliver!-like orphanage for little girls run pretty much into the ground by a lazy-legged, booze-belting Miss Hannigan. Her ticket out and to the big time, is that she's tapped to spend the Christmas holidays with gruff industrialist Oliver Warbucks — a publicity ploy to soften his public image and winds up softening his private heart.
Sandy comes and goes, darts and dashes, throughout the show while Annie and her newfound Daddy Warbucks pave the way for a better and brighter "Tomorrow."
As dog roles go, it's not much — but it never, ever, fails to land. The slightest tricks brings the house down — a reflection of the expert training of William Berloni, who coaxed the original Sandy and copped an honorary Tony for it. Here Sandy is played by Sunny and understudied by Casey, who otherwise does a cameo as Stray Dog.
Berloni passes his compliments upstairs to Lapine: "When you have a good director, it's real easy to make the dogs look good. There's a lot of new stuff in this new version — a couple of new crosses that we've done and different timing and stuff."
"No, no, no," she said, waving away the notion she might be remotely tuckered. "I'm actually really, really excited. I've been performing ever since I was two, and I always sing and dance around the house — but professionally I've been doing it since I was seven. It's such an honor to be playing this role. It really is a dream come true."
"Yes, working with children and animals is on my list of dreams," cracked Katie Finneran, as good a contemporary choice for Miss Hannigan as there is. She has Tonys for making grand comic spectacles of myopia (Noises Off) and dipsomania (Promises, Promises), and her character here as more than a touch of both.
"I'll tell you there was a real challenge trying to figure out how to make it my own — tell her story from a fresh perspective because I loved Kathy Bates, I loved Carol Burnett, I loved Dorothy Loudon. I loved those Miss Hannigans so much, and I was trying to come up with a way that was my take on the role, and that was difficult."
Her big trick is delivering her punchlines in a throaty, whiskey-husky voice, possibly left over from the outrageously idiotic owl sounds she made in Promises, Promises.
Her favorite moment in the show isn't even hers. "I love when Lilla comes down the stairs, going back to her supposed parents. She's wearing her beautiful new coat, and she takes it off and is just wearing her old sweater. I love that moment. James has done a lot of beautiful, subtle things like that. He's so smart. He had a very specific vision of what this was to be, and I think we came up with something fresh."
Bernadette Peters, she with the cascading red ringlets, led the big parade of celebrities — as well she should (she was Charnin's first choice to play the Annie role — and then he opted to go the moppet route). Peters was fresh from filming an episode of Season Two of "Smash," in which she plays Megan Hilty's stage-star mother.
The eventual choice to originate the Annie role — the strong-lunged, Tony-nominated Andrea McArdle — was dutifully in attendance, looking great at 48 and having already racked up a couple of Hannigans in stock herself. Also from the 1977 production: Shelly Burch, who started out as Star-To-Be and is now Mrs. Charnin.
Unlike most openings, but not at all inappropriate, the Palace was crawling with kids. That Championship Season's Jim Gaffigan and wife Jeannie Noth even outfitted two of their five, Marre, 8, and Katie, 3, in Annie's signature red. ("They love Annie. We saw a preview.") Meehan's pint-sized posse included two grandchildren: Sasha, 6, Emma, 4. Other celebs with tots in tow: Blankenbuehler and wife Ellie came with a gaggle of two (Sofia and Luca); producer Arielle Tepper and hubby Ian Madover with their Sasha; actress Andrea Burns with hubby Peter Flynn and their Hudson; producer Daryl Roth with three perfect young ladies; and set designer David Korins and wife, director Carolyn Cantor, with their Stella.
Reversing the youth-wants-to-know trend above, Lin-Manuel Miranda brought his dad, Luis. "I'm working on a TV show with Steven Pasquale in Philadelphia called 'Do No Harm,'" he said. "It'll air in the spring on NBC, so I'm half-writing, half-acting."
Choreographer Blankenbuehler apparently found teaching the Annie tots their baby steps habit-forming. His next is a new Peter Pan musical called Fly. "It's a whole cast of kids," he said. "We're going to do it at the Dallas Theatre Center next spring."
Set designer Korins, who displayed his ingenuity and flair for tricks with Chinglish and The Pee-wee Herman Show, came up with a chandelier here that, on cue, unfolds into a crystal-strung Christmas tree, but he found Annie a bit daunting initially.
"This is the first-ever reconceived, non-Martin Charnin version production of the show, so I felt a huge responsibility to them," he said. "I wanted the show to feel surprising in the look and inevitable. When you go to Daddy Warbucks it gives you the things you're hoping and dreaming for, but it shows them in a new, exciting way.
"I think what I most like about the show is that there's a way into it for every single person — no matter what age or demographic. It's a show about hope, about people finding a family and starting a new life together. I've had such a blast working on it."
Clarke Thorell, an affable and unflappable type of character comedian, sprouted a mustache for the comic villain Rooster Hannigan, Miss Hannigan's equally no-account bro. "But it grew in light — very blond — so I have to darken it in for the show and for the party tonight," he noted, but that's a small price to pay for "Easy Street."
His high-struttin' low-life partner in crime, J. Elaine Marcos, takes particular delight in doing that number with Thorell and Finneran. "To be on stage and hear the horns and all the music is a treat. The orchestration makes it just a sell-it number. There's nothing about it that you really have to think about; you just gotta feel good about it. Working with our musical director [Todd Ellison], when he said, 'You really got to make this a trio,' — when he said trio — this famous trio song — I thought, 'I'm part of this.' I can't believe my good luck, so I'm really very happy to be on stage and do that."
This is Marcos' second consecutive time to play the Palace and the second time her leading man has been an Aussie. "The Australians have a bad reputation for being the sweetest people in the world," she said, citing first Tony Sheldon, the Tony-nominated Bernadette of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and now Anthony Warlow, the Oliver Warbucks of Annie. "I can't wait to see Tony again," she gushed.
Sheldon was there to see a countryman take up the Palace torch, but also noted, "It's the first time I've ever watched the show from the audience at the Palace."
For the present, Sheldon is lingering a while in this country, jobbing here and there. "I just finished a movie, 'Something Whispered,' starring Cuba Gooding Jr., and I've got a couple of benefits coming up — one for Actors' Temple — and next month I'm doing one of the Project Shaw readings, Saint Joan. I'm playing The Inquisitor."
Warlow's booming voice works well, not only in songs here but in barking out captain-of-industry edicts to A-list authority figures like FDR and J. Edgar Hoover. "For a little boy from Woollongong, Seaside Town, in New South Wales in Australia, to be asked to come to Broadway to play an iconic New York character is a pretty big thing for me," he said. "Warbucks is the kind of character that's a tough role for any actor, I think — because the drawing of the character is quite broad. Sometimes the dialogue can be skeletal, but to be able to put interesting flesh on that has been my challenge. And the mentorship of James Lapine has made it very interesting for me.
"Broadway has been a long time in coming, but I have to say there's something about the community which makes me feel very comfortable. If there's any great fear about standing on that Palace stage, it was gone tonight. I've found audiences have accepted me, and so has the community — that's been the biggest thrill for me."
As you can gather, he has knocked off his share of iconic roles back home (The Phantom of the Opera, Guys and Dolls, Les Miserables), so he's well-versed in what's expected of him here. The pick of this litter, for him, is Archie Craven in The Secret Garden. "I adored that — perhaps because my daughter was just born that year. It's a magical show about children and redemption, the redeeming qualities of children."
Contrary to what you might have suspected, Warlow didn't have to shave his head to make his Broadway debut as Daddy Warbucks. "This is kinda me anyway," he admitted. "I had lymphoma when I was 30, and I lost all my hair with chemotherapy so I decided to keep it that way. I've been like this for nearly 20 years. One day, I'll come back and play a role where I have lots of hair and a beard. I have to say the wigs they make in America are fantastic, the way they flow, the way they're so real."
As Grace Farrell, Warbucks' cool, smartly tailored girl-Friday, Brynn O'Malley is a constant source of calm dignity and reason on a turf frequently cluttered with chaos.
"That quality kinda became the character, O'Malley admitted. "James Lapine and I had many conversations about, as I like to say, 'justifying gratuitous stage time.' She's out there on stage a lot, and it's very easy to make her story a smiling backdrop, so we tried to find what is her specific role. She doesn't really become a love interest for Oliver Warbucks for real until the last five seconds of the show — so what is she there for? There are little hints, little ideas in the script. It's pretty obvious. You know what's going to happen. The show's not a love story about Grace and Daddy Warbucks, so we tried to find a real purpose for her, make her specific."
The role, as written, is musically minimal. "I do a lot of starting songs for eight bars and then going off and changing my costume while everyone comes in. but 'I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here' is kinda Grace's song." Otherwise, she sorta suffers in silence, sans any big "I Don't Know How To Love Him" moment. "This story is not about that. I'd say if there's a love story it's between a future father and a future daughter, and I guess I'm the added bonus to that — that she gets a mommy at the end."
Whoever plays FDR in Annie, somehow winds up looking and behaving exactly like him — Raymond Thorne in the two previous Broadway productions and now Merwin Foard. "The chance to play FDR is remarkable," allowed Foard, who is looking forward to what Bill Murray does with the part in "Hyde Park on Hudson," Richard Nelson's new flick. "There's a lot of responsibility to being a president, especially at this time in our lives with this recent election, so I couldn't be happier."
The White House scene he presides over, where brave bromides bounce off the wall and Annie teaches him and his august cabinet to sing "[The sun'll come out] Tomorrow," carried a strong resonance on opening night, prompting the audience to respond with cheers, laughter and applause. "That was a bit of a curve ball. I told the guys when we left the scene that will be one of the few in their careers where a dramatic scene actually stops the show. It was very exciting for all of us."
Meehan noted, too, that the scene he wrote 35 years ago played younger than springtime: "I suddenly realized the fact that Obama won, made the scene a bigger success. It was like a celebration of the election as well as the show. One reason I wanted to do the show again was because I felt this time echoes the Depression."
Annie is one of two Meehan shows bowing on Broadway this week. His Elf from two years ago begins its holiday reprise Nov. 9 at the Hirschfeld, and this season's new Meehan offering — Chaplin — continues charging away at the Barrymore, bolstered by its just recorded original cast CD. On Nov. 10, he's off to Hamburg to attend the world-premiere of his Rocky musical on Nov. 18. No grass growing here.
Late-arriving for the festivities was Finneran's husband, Darren Goldstein, who raced over from his own show, The Good Mother, which The New Group premieres Nov. 15 at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. Gretchen Mol has the title role on stage; Finneran gets to live it in the Goldstein home where sons Ty and Wes reside.
Others in attendance: Kathy Najimy; lyricist Amanda Green (Birdland-bound Nov. 26) and hubby Jeff Kaplan; fit-to-be-feted-by-Abingdon-Theatre (on Nov. 19) Jamie deRoy, the producer-comedienne; Anita Gillette; actor-singer Jonathan Dokuchitz and Astaire Award-winning dancer-choreographer Michael Arnold ("I did Billy Elliot with the little girl who played Annie. She played Debbie, and she was so good in that. The first week I saw her I told her mom she was a star."); Steve Guttenberg with Eva Price; orchestrator Michael Starobin; The Secret Garden composer Lucy Simon; comedienne Caroline Rhea ("I have a Lifetime movie coming out Saturday, 'The Christmas Consultant,' with David Hasselhoff"); costume designer, Susan Hilferty, wearing red; Amy Irving of ABC's "Zero Hour," with hubby Kenneth Bowser; "Saturday Night Live" player Bobby Moynnihan, and Laura Osnes.
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