Since the 1977 musical, there have been two "Annie" stage revivals, a spinoff, TV movie, direct-to-video cheapies, and a couple of big screen extravaganzas. Some of these had different songs, side plots, and period settings but they all proved that there's nothing in the Broadway canon quite as adaptable — or malleable — as that plucky redhead and the story of her life.
Different shows for different times, but they did remain true to the original spirit — that hope for a better tomorrow. But with a pandemic, the fight for racial justice, and a bitterly divided nation, NBC's "Annie Live!" arrived like a dinghy on storm-tossed seas, itself a tribute to the power of optimism — or to the folly of it. Press too hard on the social/economic justice line, and this "Annie" is sucked into the culture wars. Press not at all and it's one more sentimental revival.
So, what about Annie? There's no reason for Annie to have red hair, or to be white. She belongs to the ages. Black or white doesn't matter nor should. Twelve-year-old Celina Smith in the title role was not quite revolutionary, as Brandy took the title role in another cultural treasure, Neil Meron's "Cinderella" and Quvenzhané Wallis in Jay-Z's 2014 "Annie" adaptation. (Meron was back to produce this, from Bethpage's Gold Coast Studios, but without Craig Zadan, who died in 2018, while Alex Rudzinski directed.)
But — about Annie — Smith was terrific. She sang that plangent anthem to better days ahead like she believed it, or meant it. The kid's got guts and talent to match. Taraji P. Henson as Miss Agatha Hannigan — the world's worst orphanage boss — was as Taraji and Hannigan must be: Over the top, and at full volume too, but Henson's was more sober than Carol Burnett's version back in 1982. Her "Little Girls" was a showstopper too, as it should be. Nicole Scherzinger as Grace Farrell was (well) Grace, and Harry Connick Jr.'s Warbucks was follicularly challenged, with a Grinch-sized heart that grew and grew and grew. (Hey, this is a Christmas show. What else was it supposed to do?)
What this "Annie" did well was to go back to basics, and to 1932, or for that matter 1977 and 2021. No pandemic, or social crises, or bitterly divided nation: Just an old-fashioned reboot of a sentimental favorite for the original fans and maybe some new ones too. This "Annie" revived a great fan favorite — "N.Y.C.," dropped from that '82 movie — and energized another crowd-pleaser, "Easy Street," with Tituss Burgess as Rooster Hannigan and Megan Hilty as Lily St. Regis (Jane Krakowski was supposed to be in the role, but she had to drop out because of COVID; Hilty was first-rate, as always.)
Meanwhile, that message about a divided country never came, and instead this "Annie" gave a huge shoutout to that greatest of cities (New York? Is there another?) and that greatest of businesses.
"I'm glad to see Broadway get back on its feet," said Connick's Warbucks. "In spite of the hard times."