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Trouble Town: Miss Hannigan (Laura Donovan) looks to make a certain orphan's life miserable in 'Annie.'

Cabrillo Stage does right by 'Annie'--and a cute dog doesn't hurt

By Michael J. Vaughn

AMONG HARD-CORE theater types, there are two principal theories on the musical Annie: (1) It's a massively entertaining pastiche of musical styles set around an enormously popular comic strip, or (2) it's the Antichrist. Or maybe it's both. These thoughts come after a Cabrillo Stage production that is so well performed and immaculately outfitted, it takes any second-guessing right out of the equation. In other words, this is Annie at its very best, so make your own judgments.

The overtly derivative nature of the show is almost forgivable. Handed a piece of genuine Americana, book writer Thomas Meehan, composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin set out to rig their show with every Broadway standard they could steal: the Weimar Republic "Cabaret" song (Miss Hannigan's "Little Girls"), the "Hello, Dolly" gymnastic-servants scene (Annie's introduction to the Warbucks mansion) and the "I Love New York" song (Warbucks' "N.Y.C."). The original pieces come from the first act's dark side: shanty-town regulars telling off the ex-president in "Hooverville," orphanage-mistress Miss Hannigan and her slimy brother, Rooster, glorifying ill-gotten gain in "Easy Street."

This nicely sordid edge is completely neutralized in Act II, because once you've been taken in by a billionaire with F.D.R. in his back pocket, how can you possibly lose? The only sign of real peril is Rooster's boast that once he and his cohorts steal Annie away by pretending to be her long-lost parents, he has ways of "making little girls disappear." But we all know that Rooster couldn't beat Dan Quayle at a spelling bee. The act turns instead into a shapeless, suspenseless celebration of Annie's adoption by Daddy Warbucks, along with a subplot about her role in ending the Depression and defeating Hitler. Light the Christmas tree, roll in the president and, just in case anyone's still sitting, bring out Sandy the dog in a gift box.

Cabrillo did a lot of things better than anyone I've seen. Fourteen-year-old Annie (Chelsea Stock) hits the standard laser-straight tones of Andrea McArdle's original but rounds them out in warm, adult vibratos and approaches the hit "Tomorrow" with a nicely understated sense of phrasing. Laura Donovan brings a résumé of inspired sadism to Miss Hannigan (including stints as the Witch in Into the Woods and Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd) and plays her with wide lunatic eyes and a glorious aura of exasperation. Terry J. Barto's Rooster presents Annie's fraud father, Mr. Mudge, as a laughably American Gothic sloth, while Brian Spencer's dead-on F.D.R. actually drew a few gasps from the audience. Led by Natasha Barthel's pugnacious Molly, the orphan girls provided plenty of energy, and the dog, Sandy Sherer, was perfect.

Lile O. Cruse's orchestra was simply great--especially drummer Michael Strunk--and the choreography of Janie Scott was endlessly inventive, particularly the small Fosse-esque gestures of "Easy Street" and "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here." Set designer Skip Epperson created remarkably intricate background flats illustrated in the style of--what else?--comic books, and a rolling panorama of Manhattan street scenes bordered by lively art-deco geometrics in "N.Y.C."

Annie plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through Aug 8 at the Cabrillo College Theatre, 6500 Soquel Dr., Aptos. Tickets are $15-$20. (479/6154)

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From the July 14-21, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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