As a return to live televised musicals after a long pandemic pause, NBC’s Annie Live! really hit the thematic nail on the head. Especially in its telling as the stage musical rather than the familiar 1982 movie version, Annie has plenty of ideas resonant to 2021: wish-fulfillment as an answer to yawning inequality; political speeches about investing in infrastructure to heal the nation; con artists seizing on personal tragedy for financial gain. Plus there’s a very cute dog!
The NBC version was not perfect; it suffered from rushed pacing early on and strange stilted momentum toward the end. Anyone who maybe hoped they could gradually adjust to the uncanny bald cap Harry Connick Jr. wore as Daddy Warbucks had to confront the fact that the bald cap would haunt his every scene. But the most important elements were there: Celina Smith was fantastic in the lead role, supported by a stellar ensemble of Annie’s orphan friends dancing their hearts out. That moment Harry Connick Jr. had to deliver an awkward line about being glad Broadway is back? It was corny! The sentiment is real, though. It is nice to see these strange, often uneven, always fascinating live musicals come back to TV.
HIGH: The luminous Celina Smith and her cohort of theater kid actors. As Annie, Celina Smith brought a clear voice and all the sunny enthusiasm necessary to carry the show. She was joined by a lot of fellow orphans from the Disney Channel school of “shout your lines!” theater kid-isms, which for Annie is just right. Make us feel like proud parents in the school auditorium rooting you all on!
HIGH: Kid tumblers! Flipping all over the stage, bouncing on the mattresses and hard knock life-ing it all over the place, but miraculously not running into each other and hard-knocking their brains out.
LOW: The breathless pacing. Perhaps in keeping with the school play energy, there was barely a break between each scene and song, as if director Lear DeBessonet was anxious to make sure the TV audience didn’t get bored. Without the space for the big moments to land things started to feel relentless, and didn’t give the audience the chance to engage with the performances as much as they could have. Taraji P. Henson’s “Little Girls” was a particular victim to this, speeding along in a way that suffocated the comedy. Give us faces, poses, and a few more seconds for those jokes to hit!
HIGH: Sandy, a very, very good dog. Sandy was played by a dog named Macy who is arguably the most experienced Annie performer in the whole production: After being rescued from a shelter in Oklahoma, Macy has played Sandy more than any other dog in the show’s history.
HIGH: The ’30s radio Wendy’s ad? The commercials in live musicals can often be miserable, but it was kind of fun to see a Wendy’s ad in the style of “Never Fully Dressed.” The only drawback is that once you see one, you really want all of them to be that way. Give us the weird eye drops done with radio sound effects! Give us NBC trying to figure out how to get people to sign up for Peacock, but with pre-WWII references!
LOW: The moments Taraji P. Henson can’t quite lock it in. In some sequences, Henson’s Miss Hannigan is perfect. She plays the big goofy reprise scenes well and is great at all the super thirsty character beats. She holds her own in the duet with Daddy Warbucks, too. (No small feat when he’s played by Harry Connick Jr.) But Henson’s Hannigan was all big silly thirst and not enough sadness and threat. Because Henson plays her as funny instead of a ridiculous and unpredictable alcoholic who is sadly humorous, the motivation for the show’s antagonist feels a little toothless. Her desperation isn’t quite naked enough.
LOW: The creases that formed at the top of Harry Connick Jr.’s head due to his bald cap: Why did he look like Megamind from the movie Megamind???
HIGH: It’s fun to have a Daddy Warbucks who can sing! Of course most stage productions cast excellent vocal performers for Warbucks, but in many movie versions or the high-profile filmed performances, Warbucks tends to go to actors who have the gravitas and gruffness over the voice. A Warbucks who’s almost hammy during the songs, as Connick plays him, is a fun shift for how the character is often portrayed. It makes him warmer, but it also feeds into the character’s ego in a way that feels right for such a pompous guy.
HIGH: Including the oft-cut “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover” and “N.Y.C.” It’s important for the kids of today to learn about the existence of Herbert Hoover through song, and also witness a Star to Be going all out on “three BUCKS two BAGS one ME.” (Plus “N.Y.C” is easily three times better than the 1982 movie’s “Let’s Go to the Movies” number!)
HIGH: Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty walking in. And the whole audience going “okay yes, let’s DO IT.”
LOW: “Easy Street” was missing one key element. “Easy Street” should be sloppy and raucous and drunk, and while Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty were very welcome additions to the production, the trio of them plus Taraji P. Henson did not have quite the chemistry that number needs. In an ideal version, “Easy Street” is so hot and horny that you kind of wonder if it’s incestuous? This Annie’s version tapped out at “pleasant warmth.”
HIGH: Beard guy! The whole Annie ensemble is strong, but it was particularly fun to watch one bearded actor, Jacob Keith Watson, do the vital theater work of playing various roles throughout the show. He was the laundry guy who resists Mrs Hannigan’s advances, he’s a resident of one of Herbert Hoover’s shanty towns, he’s a hot dog salesman, he’s advising Roosevelt on the New Deal, and he’s great at all of it. More beard guy, please.
HIGH: Nicole Scherzinger’s kicks as Grace. Like, literally very high. She wanted to remind everyone that she’s a musical theater person at heart by just kicking so high, so much. Her performance was mostly mugging at the camera and kicking, but hey, good kicking!
LOW: The many commercials offering us contradictory information about whatever happens in Sing 2. A singing competition? And also a story about a young pig facing her fears? And also the importance of family? Unclear, but it seems loud.
WHOA: Wait, there isn’t usually a helicopter scene? Once you’ve seen the 1982 movie, it’s easy to forget that an elaborate rescue scene is not usually part of the plot of Annie. The standard plot actually resolves quickly once Warbucks and Grace consult the FBI and unmask Rooster and Lily’s plot, with zero dangerous stunts involved. So much simpler! Perhaps to make up for the lack of aeronautic drama, Annie Live! just added layers of endings: with Lily and Rooster being revealed and the return of Sandy leading up to one set of bows, and then a commercial break, and then another often-cut number, “New Deal for Christmas” and a reprise of “Tomorrow.” All cute endings, but yeah, so many endings.