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New York Theater

Annie

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It's billed as "The Brand New Production," but the touring version of Annie now at Madison Square Garden for a holiday stopover has long passed its freshness date. Like the current Broadway revivals of A Chorus Line and Les Misérables, this Annie is pretty much a carbon copy of the original. Director Martin Charnin, who also wrote the lyrics, replicates his 1976 staging, and Liza Gennaro brings back the dances of her father, Peter. Even though it does give off a slight air of mothballs, the production works. We still cheer for the scrappy orphan extolling the audience to bet their bottom dollar on "Tomorrow."

That's because Charnin and company found a little girl with the right combination of singing and acting abilities to carry the show. Marissa O'Donnell possesses a trumpet of a voice with which to put over Annie's anthems to optimism and an unforced limning talent to keep her sunny disposition and sentimental scenes from becoming cloying. I almost choked up as she cried to Daddy Warbucks that she just wanted to be like other kids and find her parents. Annie's gang of fellow orphans is played by a sextet of equally professional little performers.

TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford is an odd choice for the comically maniacal Miss Hannigan. Dorothy Loudon was delightfully wicked in this potentially scene-stealing role; Gifford is just annoying. Every joke is accompanied by a half-dozen gestures and grimaces, none of which are backed up with an ounce of conviction. She's just making faces. Instead of a treat, this Hannigan is a distraction.

It looks as if Conrad John Schuck has decided to play the role of Warbucks as much as Yul Brynner played the King of Siam; he still manages to hold his own on a stage full of kids and an adorable dog. Elizabeth Broadhurst's Grace Farrell is refreshingly understated, but Scott Willis and Ashley Puckett Gonzales overplay as Hannigan's nasty accomplices, Rooster and Lily. Katherine Pecevich, Allan Baker, and Harry Turpin stand out in the ensemble.

Though it's playing in a huge space, the production feels scaled down, with Ming Cho Lee's original detailed sets replaced with a series of backdrops ready for touring. The audience may feel as if they're victims of a new holiday trend — re-gifting. Despite its fine little star, this production definitely feels as if it's been passed along several times.

Presented by NETworks Presentations, Rodger Hess and TC Theatrical at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Penn Plaza, NYC. Dec. 6-30. Schedule varies. (212) 307-7171 or www.thegarden.com. Casting by Patricia Pearce Gentry and Bob Cline.

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