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THEATER : Sweet and Sour 'Annie': Sugarplum for the Holidays

December 20, 1990|DON SHIRLEY | Don Shirley covers theater for the Los Angeles Times.

Lists of the great musicals of the last couple of decades seldom mention "Annie." In an era that focuses on more musically adventurous or scenically spectacular works, "Annie" seems old-fashioned.

Yet, it was built to last. The California Music Theatre production, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Sunday, is a rousing reminder of how masterfully "Annie" blends sweet and sour.

People tend to forget about the sour side of "Annie." Sure, the star is a freckle-faced kid, but mean Miss Hannigan (Gretchen Wyler) is there, too, vowing to step on those freckles, to borrow one of Martin Charnin's lyrics.

In fact, the three villains--Miss Hannigan, her sleazy brother Rooster (Michael G. Hawkins) and his latest bimbo, Lily St. Regis (Heather Lee)--get the liveliest number in the show: "Easy Street," that driving avowal to redistribute the wealth into their own pockets, set to a swinging, blazing beat by Charles Strouse.

The homeless have a voice, too, sardonically offering their thanks to Herbert Hoover for the mess they're in. The verses for this "Hooverville" number, as well as for "Easy Street," sound like something out of Kurt Weill.

Then there's Oliver Warbucks (John Schuck). He's a softie down deep, but Thomas Meehan's libretto also lets him observe that "you don't have to be nice to the people you meet on the way up--if you're not coming back down again."

The surest indication that this show isn't just a sugar bowl: The dog Sandy virtually disappears after only a couple of scenes.

When Annie is returned to the orphanage after running away, she seems to forget about Sandy. True, the dog inexplicably reappears for the happy ending. But generally Tootsie--the dog that portrays Sandy here--is restricted to a mere cameo. (She must realize this. "Refusing to be typecast as a dog," notes her program bio, "she plans to portray Blanche DuBois.")

This doesn't discount the sentiment that exists in "Annie." The initial test of whether you're seeing a solid "Annie" is how you feel when you hear that first ascending line of Annie's first song, "Maybe," in which the poor orphan fantasizes about what her parents might be like.

When this production's Adrienne Stiefel sang it at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where "Annie" played before it came to Costa Mesa, I felt a tingle. Stiefel has the pipes and the presence to create such moments.

Wyler's Miss Hannigan is a festival of smarmy looks and throbbing headaches. Watch those hands try to lure lovers into her life and little girls to their doom. She's a hoot.

In casting Warbucks, his secretary Grace and FDR, director Gary Davis returned to the actors he used at Long Beach Civic Light Opera in 1985--and all three couldn't be better. Schuck has one the most pugnacious visages in Hollywood, but those who have seen him only on screen may not be aware of his golden baritone. His Warbucks, polished during 18 months on Broadway, is irresistible.

Lisa Robinson's Grace is brimming with no-nonsense verve, and Tom Hatten's FDR cheerfully tries to inspire his grumpy country.

By the way, most children probably haven't heard of FDR, let alone the other New Dealers in the script. The period is treated with care, to the extent that a lyric refers to "Fred and Adele" (Astaire's sister, who was his original partner before he was teamed with Ginger Rogers for the movies).

This isn't a totally accessible show for children. But it moves well, under the musical direction of Jeff Rizzo, and there is plenty to keep eyes and ears occupied, including a glittering Christmas tree.

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