Saturday, June 22, 2013

Annie: Reviving the Hard Knock Life

If you believe the W.C. Fields theory of kids and animals, Daddy Warbucks must be a terrible part.  Plus, there’s the whole baldness thing going on.  Of course, a working stage actor would be delighted to land the role just the same, but viewers will never know who that might in the recent Broadway revival from watching the behind-the-scenes special Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life, From Script to Stage (promo here), which airs on PBS this Friday.

For producer-director Josh Seftel, the book musical Annie means only one thing: “It’s the Hard Knock Life.”  Those hoping the sun will come out tomorrow might be a tad disappointed.  Nevertheless, Seftel’s narrower focus allows him to document in-depth how the anticipated showstopper takes shape in the new production. 

“Hard Knock” will always be a challenge because it features Annie and all her fellow orphans, who will necessarily be played by young, relatively inexperienced performers.  Indeed, the revival’s charismatic nine to eleven year old cast-members (Lilla Crawford, Junah Jang, Georgi James, Madi Rae DiPietro, Taylor Richardson, Tyra Skye Odoms, and Emily Rosenfeld) come across like good kids, but they often have choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler pulling his hair out.  Adding a further challenge, he is inclined to ditch the iconic mops and buckets from the number, but remains unsure whether the audience will accept such boldness.

Crisply but sensitively lensed by Stephen T. Maing (the director-cinematographer of the fascinating and alarming High Tech, Low Life), Script to Stage was produced with fans of the musical in mind, but students of stagecraft should also be fascinated by the inside look at the revival’s creative development.  In addition to Blankenbuehler putting the young girls through their paces, Seftel also captures the work of costume designer Susan Hilferty and set designer David Korins.  It rather turns into a family affair when the latter’s theater savvy young daughter becomes production’s key demographic advisor.

Frankly, it is always easy to get caught up in behind-the-scenes Broadway documentaries, because the clock is always ticking down towards opening night while bedlam reigns backstage.  Yet, viewers looking to really get caught up in an emotional story will probably find Step By Step (the Chorus Line doc) more rewarding because of the way the cast personally relates to the show’s themes and characters.  Step is a great movie, whereas Script to Stage is a very nice television special, which should still be a good fix for theater patrons.  Nicely put together, Annie: It’s the Hard Knock Life, From Script to Stage is worth catching when it premieres on New York’s Thirteen this coming Friday night (6/28).

(Photo: Joan Marcus)