You Can't Beat the Kids in Annie from TUTS

The set-up:

There's always an exception to every rule. When it comes to the blockbuster Tony-winning Annie (1977) presented by Theatre Under the Stars with an optimistic grin a mile wide, the old showbiz canard that's been attributed to the great curmudgeon W.C. Fields, "Never work with children or animals," doesn't apply -- not with these kids and that ahh-inducing pup Sandy. (And is there another show in memory that gets applause as the show curtain, with title and cartoon of red-dressed Annie, is revealed during the overture?) The audience is happy to be here, and the show doesn't disappoint. At least not enough to dampen our early enthusiasm.

The execution:

I won't be alone in praising Miss Sadie Sink, a fourth grader from Brenham, who transforms Annie into the most adorable tyke imaginable. She's a trooper, already seen on stage at A.D. Players and formerly in TUTS's White Christmas, where she revealed her scene-stealing abilities. She's a natural Broadway baby in the making. Like a showbiz veteran, she belts out the show's signature tune, "Tomorrow," but puts over the even richer "Maybe" with simple sincerity that feels completely heartfelt. She's a joy to watch.

Her young compatriots at Miss Hannigan's orphanage, all students at TUTS's Humphreys School of Musical Theatre, are also thoroughly professional and professional scene stealers. You can't beat a number like "It's the Hard Knock Life" for showing off the talents of your students as they scrub in the floor in unison, kick up their little heels in a synchronized routine, and stealing our hearts. Mara-Catherine Wissinger, as the littlest orphan Molly, is definitely the audience favorite, deservedly so.

Without the kids and that pooch, there's not much else going on, even though Thomas Meehan's wan little book won a Tony. It's a comic version of a show with cartoon people and cartoon acting. Michelle Ragusa, as man-crazy, neurotic Miss Hannigan, wickedly channels Patti Lapone and keeps the overplaying, which seems to haunt this role ever since Dorothy Loudon cemented the characterization, to a minimum. George Dvorsky, another Broadway veteran, as super-rich Daddy Warbucks, doesn't have much to do except bark at the servants then coo over the lovely little girl who melts his industrialist's cold, cold heart, but he does it without fuss and sings his love song "Something Was Missing" with tenderness and feeling. Dave Schoonover, as Hannigan's con-man brother Rooster, is the surprise in this box of crackerjacks. He's the real thing, and watching him is like seeing Ray Bolger return to life. With his silky style, Schoonover is a jive Rooster, in orange zoot suit and those wild shoes, who glides over the stage as if oiled. Boneless, he struts and preens in "Easy Street" with Ragusa and Brandi Wooten, as low-rent Lily St. Regis, and brings up the whole tone of the show. He exudes theater pizzazz.

The music by Charles Strouse (Bye Bye Birdie, Applause) is the show's treasure, a loving pastiche of '30s-like tunes "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," "We'd Like to Thank You," to showbiz uppers "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here, "I Don't Need Anything But You," and the ubiquitous Gotham anthem, "NYC." The score is immensely likeable and full of personality. While the original orchestrations have been reduced and turn tinny in the overamplification, and Peter Gennaro's winning choreography has been excised and replaced with some tepid new dance moves, this is a fairly faithful recreation of the original production. Directed by Mark Waldrop, the show moves with smooth inevitability, as if we're turning pages.

The verdict:

You just can't beat these kids, especially Miss Sink, for raising our spirits in song. With its sunny optimism amid days that seem so dark and dreary, Annie never dates. When beautifully polished by bright-eyed kids who have their own stars in their eyes, every age can use this show's sunshiny message of hope.

See the amazing Miss Sink, along with that adorable mutt Macy, who plays Sandy, all those cute kids, and Mr. Schoonover, too, through April 1 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at www.tuts.com or call 713-558-8887. $35-$119.

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