'Annie' revival keeps original charm center stage

October 29, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Theatrical wisdom has it that nothing steals a show like kids and dogs, and if that's true, then "Annie" is the musical that turned grand theft into box office gold.

In the completely creditable version now at the Lyric Opera House -- the fourth touring production to play Baltimore in a dozen years -- the biggest scene stealer is, appropriately enough, Annie herself.

Maryland native Heather Soroka, who attends sixth grade in Severna Park when she isn't on tour, brings spunk and naturalness to the role of the red-headed orphan who is adopted by billionaire Daddy Warbucks. Her strong, pretty singing voice is as clear as the proverbial bell, and even the hint of vibrato, which may have been opening night nerves, contributed to the )) sense of this cartoon character as a real-live girl, not a manufactured show-biz kid.

It helps, of course, that she is joined on stage by two accomplished "Annie" veterans. Although Jo Anne Worley is best known from "Laugh-In," this isn't the first time she's played evil, inebriated Miss Hannigan, who rules the orphanage with an iron, if frequently trembling, fist.It's a role in which clowning can overtake character, but despite her "Laugh-In" background, Worley deftly avoids mugging -- and she's a robust singer as well.

As Warbucks, John Schuck returns to a role he played for a year and a half on Broadway. Maybe it's due to Robert Fitch's direction, but in this production he seems to be stuck with some of the more stagnant scenes. Nonetheless, Schuck, who spent three seasons at Center Stage in the 1960s, gives Warbucks just the right combination of warmth and gruffness to win the heart of tough-spirited Annie.

With a show that has become as much of an institution as "Annie," it's probably not surprising that its creators -- composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Martin Charnin and author Thomas Meehan -- have been laboring long and hard to come up with a sequel, whose latest incarnation, "Annie Warbucks," is due to arrive on Broadway in March. An earlier version, "Annie 2," closed prematurely in Washington two years ago, and at the time, you had to wonder why they didn't just revive the original instead.

DTC The current revival isn't Broadway scale -- certainly not in terms of the limited sets and orchestra -- but it is an affectionate reminder of the reasons the original worked so well, from its simple-minded, albeit charming, political philosophy to its three-dimensional realization of a comic strip. And, of course, it's an ideal show to introduce children to live theater.

And one last note. When "Annie" became a surprise hit back in 1977, lyricist Charnin, who was also the original director, attributed its success in part to the theory that "musicals of optimism and spirit are written during Republican administrations and produced during Democratic administrations," as he put it.

If the latest political polls are correct, then the time may once again be right for the little carrot-topped kid who, according to the plot, inspired Roosevelt's New Deal.

'Annie'

When: Tonight through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Through Nov. 1.

Where: Lyric Opera House.

Tickets: $17-$35; children's discounts available for some performances.

Call: (410) 889-3911.

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