It’s a funny quirk of theater that Annie Live! was actually the least nervous I’ve ever felt sitting down to watch one of these live musicals. If there’s one group of people I trust to deliver consistency, it’s kids trained in musical theater. So even though this particular production opened with a bizarre Brechtian acknowledgement of the fourth wall by way of what felt like a Gap Kids ad, and then forced young star Celina Smith to go through the stress of a quick change on national television (talk about a “moment before”), nothing could throw this young cast off its game. Less than 10 minutes in, elementary schoolers were already doing butterfly flips across the stage while singing in perfect harmony. It’s hard to think of a better way to say “theater is back, baby!” than a pre-teen belting her face off while walking a live dog around the stage. The audience couldn’t stop themselves from applauding mid-song and neither could I.
In retrospect, I can’t believe we got A Christmas Story Live! and The Grinch Live! before someone thought to stage a production of Annie. Not only is it a beloved musical, it’s also a genuinely good show too. Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s score is full of bangers, not just in the show’s best-known numbers, but also in catchy songs like “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here,” “Easy Street,” and “N.Y.C.” Between the popularity of the original cast album, the 1982 movie with Carol Burnett, the 1999 Wonderful World Of Disney version with Victor Garber and Kathy Bates, and the 2014 movie with Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx, it’s a show that’s got buy-in from multiple generations. Plus it’s literally set at Christmas! Leaping lizards, what else could you want?
Best of all, NBC finally listened to the plea I’ve put in basically every review since these live musicals started: They filmed the show in front of a live audience and let the crowd actually laugh at the jokes, rather than just cheer like they were at a rock concert. I don’t know why it took eight full years for someone to think of treating theater like theater, but at least NBC made up for it by bringing in an audience knowledgeable enough to make sure Megan Hilty got her own entrance applause in addition to Tituss Burgess’ ecstatic reception after the duo arrived onstage together as Rooster and Lily St. Regis, respectively. That’s exactly how two Broadway legends should be treated.
Annie Live! threw down the gauntlet early by squeezing in “Maybe,” “It’s The Hard Knock Life,” and “Tomorrow” all before the first commercial break. And the show kept up that momentum for its full three-hour runtime. Even the flaws— Harry Connick Jr.’s horrifyingly fleshy Daddy Warbucks bald cap, a few crew members popping up in shots here and there—just added to the fun of the whole thing. These live musicals should be a touch ridiculous, otherwise what would we tweet about? Annie Live! reminded us that girls can be orphans, billionaires can be good, and Nicole Scherzinger can fan kick while scatting. So while, sure, maybe Smith’s unexpectedly raw, naturalistic take on Annie doesn’t necessarily make sense in the same show where Taraji P. Henson is going full twitchy pantomime villain as Miss Hannigan, it doesn’t really matter when both performances are wonderful in a cast without a weak link.
Annie Live! also hugely benefited from director Lear deBessonet’s simple, pared back staging. While some of these live musicals have gone big with multiple sound stages or concert-style productions, Annie Live! mostly unfolded like an actual stage show. Jason Sherwood’s elegantly simple set put the emphasis on the performers—especially the dancers, who stole the show in the big ensemble numbers. (You can feel how hungry these performers have been to put on a show after the pandemic put a kibosh on live theater for so long, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography served them incredibly well.) And while Alex Rudzinski’s camera direction wasn’t always the best at complementing deBessonet’s stage pictures, that’s a fairly minor critique. On the plus side, other than a few late microphone moments, Annie Live! was basically the first of these live musicals to finally get the sound mixing right, which is a huge win in my book.
It also helps that Annie just feels like a nice thematic fit for our current moment. There’s something poignant about its lighthearted look at the power of optimism in the face of the Great Depression. (Hope you enjoyed that Herbert Hoover history lesson, kids!) Plus its celebration of found family is lovely too. Though this is definitely a fun-first show, I actually found myself surprisingly moved by Connick Jr.’s mournful reprise of “Maybe” when Daddy Warbucks thinks he’s going to have to say goodbye to little orphan Annie. And by the time Annie and Warbucks expressed their love for one another after she finds out her biological parents died years ago, I was full-on tearing up.
Annie Live! does what these live musicals should have been doing from the start: Pick strong source material, cast it well, and embrace the unique format of live theater, rather than try to turn it into something else. Perfectly paced and anchored by Smith’s star-making breakthrough performance, Annie Live! proved to be a lovely way to spend a Thursday night amidst the busy rush of the holiday season and the general scariness of the world right now. While so many of the previous live musicals have felt like fleeting ephemera I’ll never rewatch again, Annie Live! is one I might actually be tempted to revisit tomorrow.
- Yes, I did clap for Annie’s big entrance in her iconic red dress, and I hope you did too.
- Nicole Scherzinger walks an unparalleled line between giving an earnestly great musical theater performance and a ridiculous camp musical theater performance, and that is her power.
- Some of the camera work was pretty scattershot tonight, but I did love that Steadicam shot down the steps in “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here.”
- I also loved the fantastically colorful period styles from costumer designer Emilio Sosa, although I’m a little baffled by the choice to bookend the show with kids in modern dress.
- I truly can’t overemphasis what a difference it made to have a live audience laughing and responding to the show itself! It was especially sweet when the crowd broke into applause for Warbuck’s line, “I’m glad to see Broadway getting back on its feet in spite of the hard times.”
- I’d take a New Deal for Christmas! Or a kind billionaire who wants to adopt me.