- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2000

The traveling production of "Annie" is a solid, exuberant incarnation of one of America's most beloved musicals. The legions of fans — especially girls — who catch it at Wolf Trap this weekend will not be disappointed.
Annie originally appeared in comic strips in the early 20th century. She then moved to radio, television, movies and the stage.
Unlike more recent, dismal offerings such as "Rent," "Annie" is everything a musical ought to be: bright, loaded with energy and enjoyable for all ages. It's one of the few non-Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals with songs known to the general public, too.
For the few of you who do not know the story, it begins in a New York girls' orphanage ruled by the imperious Miss Hannigan (Alexandria native Victoria Oscar). Annie, the leader of the orphans, dreams of someday being reunited with her parents. Her only links to her past are a broken silver locket and a note left with her when she was abandoned as a baby.
One day, Grace Farrell (Marie Barlow), the personal secretary of plutocrat Oliver Warbucks (Patrick J. Cogan), visits the orphanage to choose one of the girls to spend the holidays in the Warbucks mansion. Grace picks the mischievous Annie (Dana Benedict) over Miss Hannigan's objections. Upon arrival, the irrepressible orphan wins over the staff with her enthusiasm and optimism. Even the icy Warbucks comes to love Annie as a daughter.
However, Annie still wants her parents. Although Warbucks wants to adopt her, he launches a nationwide search for them, complete with a $50,000 reward if they come forward. Seeing this as their ticket out of poverty, Miss Hannigan, brother Rooster (Edward C. Stallsworth) and his floozy girlfriend, Lily St. Regis (Heather M. Stuart), concoct a plot to pose as the parents, collect the reward and do away with Annie.
Warbucks is the original compassionate conservative, a vastly wealthy man who only needs a little prodding before he comes to enjoy the little girl. Although Warbucks is the center of the play's many contrasts — he is rich while Annie is poor, a Coolidge Republican to FDR's New Deal Democrat, hard and masculine to Grace's soft femininity — this production doesn't play off them as much as it could.
The actors also tend to rush through some of the scenes that show who the characters are, so the audience doesn't always see their significance. Warbucks' indifference toward Annie lasts only about five minutes, and Miss Hannigan could have been a little meaner. With lines such as, "Do I hear happiness in here?" she can be as rotten as she wants to be.
That being said, the cast has a knack for drawing out the play's strengths. The girls are funny darlings — how come no one wants to adopt them? Their musical numbers are a blend of infectious singing and gymnastic choreography, especially "It's the Hard-Knock Life," which I could have watched five or six times in a row. Blaire Restaneo, who plays the smallest orphan, Molly, nicely uses the scene-stealing moments that the script provides.
Annie is cute without being cloying and lets the other actors have their places without drawing too much attention to herself. That's an achievement for an adult lead actor, let alone a 12-year-old. Her voice in songs such as "Tomorrow" was so strong as to be almost explosive, though how she can keep this up in a rigorous performance schedule remains to be seen.
NETworks, the company producing the show, has given Washington a joyful pleasure with "Annie," one that lives up to the musical's reputation. If you like the show at all, you undoubtedly will be pleased with what you see.

WHAT: "Annie"
WHERE: Wolf Trap's Filene Center, 1624 Trap Road, Vienna
WHEN: 8 tonight and tomorrow night and 2 p.m. today and tomorrow
TICKETS: $18 to $50
PHONE: 703/218-6500, or www.wolftrap.org

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