So much fuss has been made over the firing of 12-year-old Joanna Pacitti, who won a nationwide talent contest to play the title role in the 20th-anniversary revival of the musical "Annie," you might think that was the part that mattered most.
Don't get me wrong, the kid is important, and Pacitti's replacement, 8-year-old Brittny Kissinger, has a cute mug, surprisingly big pipes for such a little tyke and the comic timing to make her an appealing Annie. With time, she'll gain in self-assurance, which will heighten the laughs.
But the role that galvanizes the musical and makes it more than just a kiddie show is Miss Hannigan, the drunken ogress who runs the orphanage in which Annie was dumped. Unfortunately, Nell Carter lacks the timing and the presence to make the role truly towering.
I have always had an irrational fondness for Harold Gray's comic strip about the vacant-eyed orphan who, in the depths of the Great Depression, found salvation in the arms of a wealthy munitions manufacturer.
In retrospect, this was an unlikely subject for a musical, but Thomas Meehan, who wrote the book, Martin Charnin, who did the lyrics, and Charles Strouse, who did the score, turned it into a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek fable about hope and self-renewal.
Gray might have bristled at the loving portrayal of FDR or the chorus lauding the New Deal, but in 1977 it seemed just right. So did "N.Y.C.," the song celebrating New York, coming barely a year after The News' headline "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD."
I admired the original production enormously and awaited the revival eagerly.
This revival does have its bright spots: Conrad John Schuck's powerful voice and presence are just right for Daddy Warbucks; Colleen Dunn is wonderfully appealing as his secretary; Jim Ryan is a superb Rooster, Miss Hannigan's crooked brother, and Raymond Thorne reprises the role of FDR, which he created, beautifully.
As Annie's dog, Sandy, Cindy Lou has sweet, melancholy eyes. She, too, lacks the self-assurance of her predecessor, but doubtless this will come with time.
The revival is gracefully designed by Kenneth Foy, especially his nostalgic evocation of Times Square in the '30s. Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes capture the period, and Ken Billington's lighting sets the moods effectively.
As for Carter, maybe the Hannigan role should have been the subject of a nationwide audition though I doubt anyone will ever play it as brilliantly as Dorothy Loudon, who originated it and made every verbal swipe she took at the hapless children hilarious.
The role was given to Carter not because of the stellar work she did on Broadway years ago in "Ain't Misbehavin,' " but rather because, in the interim, she became a TV star. Also in the interim, she seems to have lost her ability to command a stage, which is what Miss Hannigan must do.
The siren voice is intact, but it works far less well in conventional musical-comedy material than it did for Fats Waller. Carter also lacks the surefire comic timing needed to make you eager for this villainess' every arrival.
Ultimately, the overall impression is of a touring show light, efficient, but only fitfully capturing the power and spirit of the material.
"Annie," the musical, is set in the Depression. The revival that opened last night at the Martin Beck Theater may send you into one.
What happened to this perky crowd-pleaser on the road back to Broadway? Did the backstage battle over the title role, which ended with the would-be child star, Joanna Pacitti, being sent kicking and screaming to the showers, throw the cast into an irreversible funk? The production, directed by Martin Charnin, who guided ''Annie'' to roaring success 20 years ago, suffers from a severe energy shortage. It's a charmless affair, so lacking in vitality that it wouldn't be a surprise to learn it had actually been running for the last 20 years.
Even Sandy, the most famous stray in show business, seems anesthetized.
''Annie'' was never a sublime example of musical theater. With lyrics like ''No one cares for you a smidge/ When you're in an orph-a-nage,'' it did not exactly earn landmark status. Still, its arrival in 1977 was heralded by critics as a re-emergence of the tuneful book musical. Audiences flocked to it; the original Broadway production ran for 2,377 performances. How, after all, could anyone have gone wrong with vamping orphans and ''Tomorrow,'' a song that would establish itself as the anthem for a generation of Baby Junes eager to sing out for casting directors?
As Mr. Charnin, who also wrote the lyrics, and Charles Strouse, the composer, learned with their failed 1993 sequel, ''Annie Warbucks,'' the formula was by no means foolproof. Now, it turns out, reproducing the original is no sure bet, either.
A few bright spots shine through in this story of an irrepressible comic strip character who comes to the aid of a mongrel, a mogul and ultimately a nation. Conrad John Schuck, in the role he played during the original run, has an avuncular grace as Daddy Warbucks, the billionaire whose profit from his amalgamation with Annie is anything but mercenary. Colleen Dunn, who plays Warbucks's secretary, has the feathery elegance of the devoted second who treads lightly but loves deeply.
As for Brittny Kissinger, the mop-topped 8-year-old who donned Annie's red curls after Miss Pacitti was unceremoniously de-wigged: she brings a sweet pluckiness to the heroine's role. It's no pleasure, however, to report that her performance, so central to the musical's success, lacks sparkle. This is a significant problem, but perhaps with more experience, an ineffable star quality will emerge. In the vocal department, she is adequate but never impinges on the memory of the clear-as-a-bugle-call vocalizations of the original, Andrea McArdle, whose rendition of ''Tomorrow'' remains the standard.
Not much else is even up to this level. Although reviewers heaped praise on the original's scenery, the new ''Annie'' neither looks nor sounds like the lavish cartoon it is meant to be. The choreography by Peter Gennaro, who has recreated his own dances, now seems mundane. The orphans' rousing ''It's the Hard-Knock Life'' never achieves liftoff, a serious setback for a 90-minute first act with few musical peaks. Kenneth Foy's set for the ''I Love New York''-style production number, ''N.Y.C.,'' consisting of a skyline and a pair of billboards with flashing light bulbs, has ''road company'' written all over it. Even the costumes by the dependable Theoni V. Aldredge, who won a Tony for her designs for the original, look drab.
Nowhere is the show's distracted air more pronounced than in Nell Carter's off-base portrayal of Miss Hannigan, the boozy floozy who runs the beastly orphanage.
Ms. Carter, of the fabulous gyrations and sexy -- yes, sexy -- leers, does not seem to have her heart in the role. Her Miss Hannigan is unseasoned evil; she takes no joy in her villainy, so there is nothing to leaven her performance. Her model appears to be Wackford Squeers, the sadistic schoolmaster of ''Nicholas Nickleby,'' when she should be inhabiting the spirit of the naughty Devil in ''Damn Yankees.''
Whenever the band strikes up, however, Ms. Carter is transformed. Only in her songs, particularly ''You Make Me Happy'' and ''Easy Street,'' do you get a glimpse of what might have been. It's as if she has pulled herself out of a pool after struggling in the deep end: her face lights up, her body relaxes. Suddenly, she's back in ''Ain't Misbehavin','' the musical that made her a star.
This is all a bizarre turn of events for a show that celebrates the can-do American spirit. The original ''Annie'' ran smack dab into the doldrums of the 1970's, the era of Arab oil embargoes and a President's declaration of a national state of malaise. Annie's eternal optimism, which in the story inspires F.D.R. to come up with the New Deal, was relevant for contemporary audiences. It was a reminder of why historians call this the American Century.
Two decades later, ''Annie'' still trumpets its affection for up-by-the-bootstraps values. But times do change. The White House scene is funny now not simply because the President lifts the nation's fortunes thanks to a little girl's pep talk, but because of the solution he arrives at: the Government will spend its way out of chaos, building bridges and dams and putting millions on the Federal payroll. If this were attempted today, when the debate is over how to shrink government and undo costly programs, there would be accusations of incompetence at least.
It is probably too much to ask that this slender musical address the altered political climate. On the other hand, the changes in the world underline how little the creators have done to evoke in the 1997 ''Annie'' anything except nostalgia for the 1977 production.
As a result, this revival is like a cake that has been sitting in the back of an ancient icebox too long: it's frozen stiff and impossible to swallow.
With "Star Wars" back on the screen, why not "Annie" on the boards? Defiantly old-fashioned even in 1977, the musical that unleashed "Tomorrow" on the world is no more dated now than it was then, and this 20th anniversary production is an enjoyable, professional re-mounting. If the show no longer has the ability to catch an audience unawares with its retro charm or power-lunged tykes, "Annie" remains commercial family entertainment, and should nicely tap into Broadway's tourist trade.
With original director Martin Charnin back at the helm, this new "Annie" hasn't been reconsidered to any noticeable extent (even Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes provoke deja vu), but a good cast and a decent, if unspectacular, physical production make "Annie" a solid entry in Broadway's crowded spring lineup.
The recent brouhaha over the hiring and firing of a 12-year-old actress in the title role won't matter much to audiences once 8-year-old Brittny Kissinger hits the stage. Cute but not cloying, the young actress has the big voice long associated with the role yet without the similarly familiar steely edges. "Annie" no longer has the surprise factor going for it --- and so a repeat of the star-making turn that produced Andrea McArdle is unlikely --- but little Kissinger won't disappoint kids or their parents.
Actually, it's Nell Carter as Miss Hannigan, the evil operator of the orphanage, who gets above-the-title billing here, and she makes for a fine, broadly played comic foil. Whether growling her nasty orders to the orphans or using a sweet-as-honey voice when kissing up to the adults, Carter finds the right mix of villainy: comic book with a healthy dollop of Dickens. Her performance of "Little Girls" upholds that number's position as an "Annie" high point, and her new song written especially for this production --- "You Make Me Happy" --- takes full advantage of Carter's belting vocal style, even if the act-one song itself isn't particularly memorable. Both the production and Carter would have been better served with a new number in the second act, when the Miss Hannigan character is left to fizzle away without a big send-off.
As Daddy Warbucks, Conrad John Schuck (the actor, well-known as John Schuck, recently began using his given name, Conrad, as a tribute to his father) has the requisite deep, booming voice and formal but warm chemistry with Annie. Any actor playing Warbucks must convey, with few words, a growing fatherly attachment to the urchin, and Schuck does it well.
Rest of the cast is at least adequate, although some of the orphan girls could do with a bit less staginess. In fact, so could adult Jim Ryan, who mugs up a storm as Miss Hannigan's con-man brother. Still, he (like the children) dances and sings with the enthusiasm the show demands.
New sets by Kenneth Foy --- heavy on the painted backdrops, lots of sliding panels --- are more efficient than eye-popping, and seem modest by Broadway musical standards. Only an urchin would be dazzled by the Warbucks mansion, an interior that, like the production itself, is more attractive than stunning.