“Annie Live!,” which aired last night (Dec. 2) on NBC and streaming now on Peacock TV, is a dose of optimism served by a refreshing and resourceful cast. Despite a few flaws, it’s the right show for the right time with a tireless message of hope and confidence.
- Live TV is not easy to do; there were a few glitches, but staging a full-tilt musical without a conventional proscenium stage plus a live audience watching, requires a mobile and agile cast. This one delivered masterful and quick action, from orphanage quarters to New York City locales.
- Celina Smith as Annie was a breakout star, looking like a young Aretha Franklin – those cheeks!—and singing like a diva. Yep, she gives life to “Tomorrow,” the show’s key anthem, in several incremental moments including the near-the-final curtain where she has President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Alan Toy) and some of his cabinet singing hopeful versions that “the sun will come out tomorrow,” referring to the New Deal.
- Taraji P. Henson as the manipulative and mean Miss Hannigan is a revelation. Who knew? She can sing, dance, and mug for the cameras; she is a new-generation, fashionable and formidable villain, but one wih a heart and infections charisma.
- Harry Connick Jr.’s Daddy Warbucks is a puzzlement. He can sing, which is why he’s in this, but that bald scalp cap seems to affect his disposition; the fake pate was a constant irritant, for him and for us viewers.
- Hawaii’s Nicole Scherzinger is a charming Grace Farrell, assistant to Warbucks, with a voice and legs with plenty of action in the dance moments.
- Tituss Bergess as Rooster Hannigan and Megan Hilty as Lily St. Regis were the perfect foils, secondary schemers who want to collect $50,000 in a fraudulent guise as Annie’s long forgotten parents. Hilty, in particular, deserves special applause – replacing Jane Krakowski, sidelined with COVID and unable to perform.
- The ensemble of orphans is incredibly agile, remarkably darling, and delightfully polished — these youths can sing, dance and cartwheel like veterans. The opening “It’s a Hard Knock Life” is an example of swift and stunning movement (remember those mops and buckets?); this is a show-stopper, so early in the show, and tough to beat over the three hours of showtime (including beaucoup commercials, with Wendy’s homage to the era a keeper).
- In context of the show, several resonating elements — a homeless population, a depressed economy, and the return of Broadway shows –reflect the prevailing cultural and economic climate now. So forget datedness – “Annie Live!” has fresh-as-today ripples and undercurrents, like the need for optimism and hope.
- Don’t recall if the namedropping is part of the original script, but let’s face it: the history-lesson utterances of Babe Ruth, Walter Winchell, J. Edgar Hoover, and more (Annie doesn’t know ‘em) reflect the heroes and notables from the past who should never be forgotten.
- Every dog has its day, and Sandy, the pooch “adopted” by Annie, is a rescue adoptee himself, named Macy. He makes an early appearance, but doesn’t show up till the closing moments of the show, and the question is why? He’s apparently done a number of “Annie” shows and should complain to his agent.
- The score by Charles Strouse and Martin Sharnin is jammed with inspirational tunes; besides “Tomorrow,” the spirit-lifters include “Maybe,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile” and “I Don’t Need Anyone But You” … all could be quotable truisms today. The stage musical, based on the Howard Gray’s comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” made its Broadway debut in 1977, with book by Thomas Meehan. Lear deBessonet and Alex Rudzinski co-directed, with choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
Kudos to NBC, which continues to support and stage an annual “live” musical, despite the challenges of assembling the production for a mere one night and during the ongoing pandemic. The good spinoff: a CD soundtrack is available and a DVD likely will follow. This is a tradition worth supporting and continuing…
And that’s Show Biz. …