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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 20, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Annie’

Leapin’ lizards! Can it really be time for another

revival of "Annie"?

The Paper Mill is one of three area theaters reminding us that this

is the musical’s 25th anniversary year. And although it seems like

yesterday, it has been 19 years since Paper Mill last staged the hit

musical that ran for more than five years on Broadway.

It should come as no surprise that the gargantuan success of the show

fashioned by writer Thomas Meehan, composer Charles Strouse, and lyricist

Martin Charnin from Harold Gray’s popular comic strip, "Little

Orphan Annie," would eventually multiply, divide, and breed innumerable

productions, both large and small, throughout the civilized world.

While countless productions can be found onstage at regional and community

theaters every place your find a little redhead with a big voice,

"Annie" is being staged at the Paper Mill in its appropriately

lavish form.

"Annie" is the quintessence of a fast-fading formula musical

genre whose very predictability makes it endearing. For all its familiarity

and general lack of excitement, both musically and dramatically, "Annie"

is quietly appealing and reassuring the way a short return to nostalgia

brings comfort and security after your boundaries have been stretched

by the passing years. "Annie" isn’t an old musical, it just

seems like one. That’s comforting in a way, but just a bit boring.

Under Greg Ganakas’ direction, the Paper Mill show and cast go through

predictable patterns as if nothing — short of that beloved mongrel

Sandy forgetting an entrance or being naughty on stage — could

alter the acutely dimensionless activity. In "Annie," the

Depression Era couldn’t be less depressing. Even in December, neither

plight of the homeless huddled around outdoor fires, nor the cruelty

at the Municipal Orphanage, will allow any ill wind to chill the warm

glow that exudes from Annie and her glad-ragged cohorts. There is

a decided pleasure in seeing them cavort in synchronized waves of

show biz skills, while their tyrannical, blowzy matron of horrors,

Miss Hannigan, swigs her hooch and brandishes a paddling stick with

all the menace of a demented trick-or-treater.

Sarah Hyland may be one of the more sophisticated Annies to melt any

capitalist’s heart. Tall, self-assured, and perky, Hyland takes an

aggressive, no-nonsense approach to the role that backfires only when

she needs to be vulnerable. But will someone please take away her

horrid red Medusa-curl wig and burn it? Notwithstanding her mostly

off-pitch singing, Hyland belts out the requisite notes with gusto.

Even with his obligatory Yul Brynner coif, Rich Hebert brings a tough

and tender distinction to the role of Daddy Warbucks. Too bad he only

gets to use his fine baritone voice in the single solo, "Something

Was Missing." As much a caricature as it is a character, the role

of Miss Hannigan gives Catherine Cox an opportunity to throw subtlety

to the wind as she mugs her way effectively through "Little Girls"

and "Easy Street."

I doubt if Warbucks ever had a more stunning secretary than Crista

Moore, whose lovely soprano voice is underused, but whose radiant

presence glows brighter than the fully-lit Christmas tree. Eric Michael

Gillett was tongue-in-cheek-ily effective as F.D.R. And as Annie’s

bogus parents, both Jim Walton and Tia Speros bring a vaudevillian

flavor to their respective portrayals of Rooster and Lily St. Regis.

The half-dozen rebellious orphans and supporting cast seem to confront

each new scene with the confidence that comes with a "New Deal."

Standout among the orphans is pint-size Jaclyn Neidenthal. Catch her

snappy cartwheel and split. The show has been pleasantly choreographed

by prescription by Linda Goodrich.

The handsome settings by Michael Anania (though why would Warbucks

hang his coveted Mona Lisa and Blue Boy in his study 20 feet above

eye level?), as well as other production values were all first rate.

For those of us who have been Annie-sized for the past 25 years, the

magic is slightly muted. For the "Tomorrow" generation, "Annie"

still works like magic. Arf!

— Simon Saltzman

Annie, Paper Mill, Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343.

25th anniversary production runs through December 8. $30 to $62.

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