If you're bringing back "Annie," you'd better have a star who can shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.
No musical this side of "Into the Woods" has been performed at more middle schools, community theaters or talent shows than this Tony-winning 1977 classic, whose toe-tapping songs and sugar-sweet veneer mask a slightly darker story about capitalist propaganda and extreme wealth inequality. (Lest we forget, Annie essentially "Forrest Gumps" her way into inspiring the New Deal.)
Regardless, we've all endured at least one bad production of "Annie" in our lifetimes. So it didn't exactly spark excitement this summer when NBC announced it would continue the network's live musical programming with this family friendly show at Christmastime, featuring Grammy winner Harry Connick Jr. as billionaire Daddy Warbucks and "Empire" actress Taraji P. Henson as the slippery Miss Hannigan.
But our skepticism dissipated minutes into the network's "Annie Live!" on Thursday night, as young triple threat Celina Smith took the stage to sing "Maybe," the dauntless orphan Annie's yearning plea for her parents to find her. Although just 12 years old, Smith brings a world-weary sadness and almost desperate optimism to her otherwise chipper character, who lands a shot to stay at Warbucks' mansion for the holidays. Factor in her easy confidence, infectious smile and powerful, crystal-clear voice, and it's only a matter of time until Smith's name lights up a Broadway marquee.
The reason that "Annie Live!" works so well is due in large part to Smith's star-making performance, along with some memorable turns from her consummate castmates. Nicole Scherzinger (of the Pussycat Dolls) brings palpable warmth and pathos to the often thankless role of Warbucks' assistant-turned-love interest Grace Farrell, and delivers one of the night's few genuine showstoppers in the jazzy "We Got Annie."
Broadway and TV veterans Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty strike the perfect balance of cheese and sleaze as con artists Rooster Hannigan and Lily St. Regis, respectively, while the orphans' thrilling "It's a Hard Knock Life" was enough to make us wish Annie never left the orphanage.
But not everyone hit home runs. We adore Connick's honeyed, husky croon, although his stilted acting made Warbucks more awkward than endearing. And while Hannigan is a delicious role that offers ample opportunity to ham it up during standout numbers "Little Girls" and "Easy Street," Henson doesn't merely chew the scenery as the villainous orphanage head – she swallows the whole proscenium in a shrieking, mugging turn that whiffs on all the punchlines. (It's a shame, because vocally Henson is one of the stronger Hannigans we've seen.)
"Annie Live!" is produced by Robert Greenblatt and Neil Meron, who along with the late Craig Zadan was responsible for all of NBC's recent live musicals starting with "The Sound of Music Live" in 2013. He also backed the marvelous 1999 made-for-TV "Annie," starring Kathy Bates and Victor Garber.
Perhaps due to COVID-19 limitations, Thursday's show lacked the vibrant scope of predecessor "Hairspray Live!" or the jaw-dropping visuals of "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert." (And don't forget Fox's "Grease Live!", still the gold standard for modern TV musicals five years after it aired.)
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"Annie Live!" was entirely confined to one soundstage with minimal set pieces, a brown-paneled floor and a generic backdrop of a New York skyline. While the bare-bones design was serviceable for much of the show, the biggest casualty was "N.Y.C.," the musical's love letter to the glorious chaos and glitz of Manhattan. Relegated to a few lighted signs and a hot dog stand, the hardworking ensemble was left to bring most of the pizzazz. The production's cameras also frequently dropped into frame and obscured the actors, while mic issues left some inaudible.
But what it lacked in style, "Annie Live!" ultimately made up for in heart, with indelible showtunes and a winning lead performance that left us grinning. And after all, you're never fully dressed without a smile.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Annie Live!' review: Celina Smith shines in NBC's live musical return