After last year’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical” – a dual threat as both a critical disaster and a ratings flop – NBC returned to more fertile territory with its latest holiday presentation, “Annie Live!” Incorporating a live audience, the show more closely approximated the energy of a theatrical experience, with its main flaw stemming from trying too hard to please.
Having a crowd actually watch the show helped overcome one of the raps on this format over the last decade, mounting some memorable shows but struggling to capture the unique qualities of an in-person setting.
On the downside, the audience (one suspects with a degree of coaching) sounded a bit too appreciative and enthusiastic, applauding during numbers and carrying on as if this “Annie” was frankly a better show than it is or was.
It’s also worth noting the first priority remains presenting these musicals as a TV show, allowing cameras to swoop in and around the performers to provide an up-close view. By that measure, even the best seat in the house was occasionally obstructed so the folks at home could be treated to closeups of the stars.
Quibbles aside, the show boasted considerable talent, with young Celina Smith ably filling the title role after a slightly shaky start, flanked by Harry Connick Jr. as Daddy Warbucks, the billionaire who takes in the determined orphan prone to singing “Tomorrow,” the show’s signature and one really memorable number, about every 15 minutes.
Taraji P. Henson also gamely dove into the juicy role of Miss Hannigan, the cruel orphanage mistress, with Tituss Burgess and Megan Hilty providing an extra boost of theatrical flair as her grifter brother and his girlfriend, who attempt to derail Annie’s adoption.
The Depression-era theme did account for one deservedly crowd-pleasing moment, during which Warbucks talks about taking Annie to see a musical, adding, “I’m glad to see Broadway getting back on its feet in spite of the hard times.” After a year of closed New York theaters, the applause felt more spontaneous than anything else within the telecast.
Beyond that, “Annie” benefited from its sheer unpretentiousness, offering the can’t-miss (or at least miss entirely) combination of cute kids, buoyant dance numbers, a little girl with a big voice, that trademark red dress, and of course a very well-trained dog who shows up just long enough to make everyone swoon.
Sure, the story might be set in the Depression, but “Annie Live!,” warts and all, delivered a little ray of sunshine heading into the holidays – something forgotten by tomorrow, perhaps, but good enough for tonight.