Evergreen

Everyone's favorite redheaded orphan has been recently reborn in a new production by the St. Jean's Players on the Upper East Side. The company's sterling version of Annie is absolutely charming and makes for a perfect holiday treat. Sometimes a commercial work of art gets so engrained in the popular consciousness that it becomes easy to take it for granted. This is true of a perennial like Annie; it would be easy to dismiss this well-known and frequently performed show, but it has such heart and such a talented cast that it demands respect.

As does its famous score, with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin, along with Thomas Meehan's book, adapted from the popular comic book. Young Erin Moriarty is superb in the title role, bringing both charm and pathos to numbers like "Maybe" and "Tomorrow," songs that are as challenging as they are catchy. It is hard not to imagine her treading the boards on Broadway in the near future.

Annie's plot hasn't changed much over the nearly three decades since the show first hit the stage. The lovable orphan gets taken in by billionaire Daddy Warbucks (Charles Mobbs) at Christmastime, only to encounter his previously undiscovered feelings, both paternal (for Annie) and romantic (for assistant Grace Farrell, played by sweet-voiced Jennifer Hoddinott). Miss Hannigan (Sharon O'Neal), who runs Annie's boarding house, throws a monkey wrench into the Warbucks clan's plans by getting into cahoots with her no-good brother Rooster (Dean Polites) and his dame, Lily St. Regis (Amanda Butcher).

Does all end well? Bet your bottom dollar it does. Yet Sharon Lowe directs this family production with such finesse that one is engaged throughout. O'Neal is perfect as the nasty Miss Hannigan, and she and Polites (who proves to be remarkably flexible in the "Easy Street" number) work off of each other quite well. Lowe's entire company proves to be nearly flawless, from Arthur Gruen as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to Larry Hirshik as radio personality Bert Healy, to Bailey Mason as Star-to-Be; her melisma during her "N.Y.C." solo is another testament to the score's strength. Furthermore, the girls who play Annie's orphan friends present a phalanx of talent.

Lowe's leads also excel. Mobbs is wonderful as Warbucks, who goes from thinking with his wallet to thinking with his heart. As he plays against Moriarty, you can't imagine someone would not melt in her presence. And though occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, Hoddinott, who also worked on the costumes, makes for a perfectly righteous Grace.

Annie may be an evergreen, but with solid performances and well-crafted songs, Lowe keeps it fresh, finding the perfect marriage between comedy and sentiment. It's shows like this that bring cheer to the holiday season.

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