"Annie" the musical has always been a strangely put-together, likable hybrid resembling Dr. Doolittle's fabled "Pushmepullyou," a llama with two heads that propel the beast in different directions.
And whether a particular production of "Annie" trots north or south historically has depended on the relative strengths of the actors. If the child in the title role has personal magnetism, and a voice that could drill through steel -- and the first quality always has been more difficult to cast than the second -- the musical becomes the story of a girl, a mutt and the billionaire who loves them.
The girl playing Annie doesn't need a gorgeous voice, but it has to be strong enough to be heard over a pit orchestra when she sings alone on stage. Luckily, the sounds coming from Meredith Anne Bull's mouth on the Lyric Theatre stage are as attention-grabbing as a referee's whistle. Bull shows real potential as an actress -- when Annie is told that her parents are dead, she looks so genuinely downcast that it stops your heart. She's at her most believable when portraying Annie's vulnerable side, not her indomitable spirit.
Traditionally, it has taken an Annie as strong as Andrea McArtle, who originated the role in 1977, to wrest the spotlight from some of the powerhouse actresses who have portrayed Miss Hannigan in the past, from Dorothy London to Sally Struthers. But if Miss Hannigan is too dominant, the musical threatens to become her story, and not the orphan's.
Not only does Miss Hannigan get some of the best songs, from the bluesy "Little Girls" to the honky-tonk rhythms of "Easy Street," the role is a comic tour de force with unexpected, subtle overtones. For instance, consider Miss Hannigan's head of unruly curls. Hmmm. Where have we seen that mop before?
She speaks, comically and yearningly, of her desire for love. And though her optimism has become grimy after years of doing without, she continues to hope that there will be sun "Tomorrow." But wait -- isn't that Annie's song?
If Victoria Oscar doesn't give the same slobbering, stomping, spitting performance as previous Miss Hannigans, it may conversely serve the musical better by striking a more equitable balance between characters. And Oscar has one extravagantly over-the-top moment when she learns that Oliver Warbucks plans to adopt the orphan girl she despises.
She steps behind a door so that she's out of the direct view of the audience, and begins to scream while slowly dragging her fingernails down the glass pane. The sound starts out like the grinding of a locomotive engine, progresses to a revving motorcycle and finally ends in a throaty yowl. Oscar holds the sound for so long that it becomes the reverse feat of an opera singer's high C. Tuesday's audience spontaneously applauded, and deservedly so.
Finally, the musical tries to be a social commentary on the problems of the poor, capitalism and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal. This theme is dealt with most bitingly in "We'd Like to Thank You," sung by the homeless residents of "Hooverville" -- named for President Herbert Hoover, whom the musical blames for plunging the country into the Great Depression.
This is where any production of "Annie" is most likely to run into problems. Policy debates rarely produce gripping drama, or a convincing excuse to break into song.
Also, this is where the show departs most radically from the 1924 comic strip by Harold Gray on which "Annie" is based. Gray was deeply conservative and despised FDR; but the Democratic president is one of the musical's heroes. And Gray had one unbreakable rule for his strip -- it never could have a happy ending. I suspect that it won't be giving anything away to reveal that the musical does.
And yet -- the cartoon was an unabashed proponent of capitalism, as exemplified by Daddy Warbucks. So it's worth noting that there have been two major productions of "Annie" in the past 23 years. The first ran on Broadway for 2,377 performances. The second opened in 1997, and road shows still are touring the country. "Annie" the musical has made oodles of money.
Harold Gray just might approve after all.