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Doggone cute

In this decidedly unfunny time of financial meltdowns and an ever-growing ditch between poor and rich, "Annie" seems to carry a lot more weight than it did when it first came to Broadway in 1977.

Now, when the hoboes and homeless in a shantytown beneath the highway sing a bitter song to former President Herbert Hoover, the audience can be forgiven for mentally replacing "Hoover" with "Bush."

That's not to say that anything's too terribly serious about "Annie." After all, any show in which a spunky orphan belts out, "The sun'll come out tomorrow/So you gotta hang on til tomorrow" has to have a happy ending -- and so, it's to be hoped, will the audience.

That was certainly the case at the Atwood Hall on Wednesday, when a three-quarters-capacity crowd rewarded the national tour company with a standing ovation. (OK, these are arguably too common in Anchorage, but what the hey.)

Set in New York City at Christmas time of 1933, in the depth of the Great Depression and before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the New Deal, the show follows Annie (Madison Kerth), an 11-year-old foundling who in a few days goes from the squalor of an orphanage run by the grasping Miss Hannigan (Lynn Andrews) to the polished mansion of multibillionaire Oliver Warbucks (David Barton). In the process, she charms Warbucks, his assistant, Grace Farrell (Analisa Leaming), F.D.R. (Jeffrey B. Duncan) and his entire Cabinet. She also becomes the target of Miss Hannigan's con-man brother, Rooster (Zander Meisner), and Rooster's bimbette, Lily St. Regis ("I was named after the hotel"), played by Cheryl Hoffmann.

The production reflects the show's origins as a comic strip. The painted backdrops for the Oval Office and Warbucks' mansion play effectively with perspective. The set for the orphanage has a decided list to the right. And Annie's second-act red dress and matching wig are straight from the funny pages.

So, for that matter, is the acting, which owes a great deal to the giant-gesture school. No emotion is left under-emoted. But Annie and "Annie" manage to hold interest through more than 2½ hours (including a 20-minute intermission).

In the title role on Wednesday, Madison Kerth seemed a bit subdued early on, but she quickly picked up speed. And she easily demonstrated a major "Annie" prerequisite: the Ethel Mermanesque vocal chops to take "Tomorrow," the show's signature song, to the back row of the Atwood's second balcony.

Among her fellow orphans, the standout was tiny Mackenzie Aladjem, who is just so doggone cute and lively that she risks pulling focus whenever she's onstage.

As Annie's canine companion Sandy, a stray with whom she connects during an escape from the orphanage, Mikey comported himself flawlessly, entering and exiting on cue, coming when called, and refraining from leaving any odoriferous ad libs. The pooch also brought his own sound effects; every time he appeared, the audience let out a collective "Awwwwwww."

A standout among the post-pubescent cast members was Analisa Leaming as Grace Farrell. Leaming has a genuine warmth, which the show needs to leaven the more cartoonish elements, and a stunning operatic voice. Somebody, give this woman her own show!

The production also included the nearly obligatory shout-out to Alaska: a farewell to a radio station's "weather girl," who is moving "to the Mix, 103.1 in North Anchorage in the Yukon territory of Alaska."

• Find Linda Billington online at adn.com/contact/lbillington or call 257-4332.

Annie timeline: Looking great for 124 years old!

1885: James Whitcomb Riley writes his poem, "Little Orphan Annie."

1924: Cartoonist Harold Gray creates a new comic strip, "Little Orphan Otto"; a Chicago Tribune editor changes the character to "Annie."

1925: First appearance of Daddy Warbucks and his wife. Mrs. Warbucks disappears from the storyline after a few years.

1930: "Little Orphan Annie" becomes a radio show, sponsored by Ovaltine. At the height of its popularity, the script is produced by two different casts for East and West Coast audiences. It is the first daily after-school children's serial program and runs until 1940.

1932: David O. Selznick's "Little Orphan Annie" is the first of several film adaptations of the strip.

1934: Left-leaning publications, furious over the strip's criticism of President Roosevelt and the New Deal, cancel the strip and excoriate "Annie" as "Hooverism in the Funnies." Cartoonist Gray detested Roosevelt and labor unions; ironically, FDR makes an appearance as a good guy in the musical.

1935: Punjab, an 8-foot Indian, makes his first appearance as one of Warbuck's henchmen. The Asp, an East Asian, follows in 1937.

1942: "Colonel" Annie is used to recruit thousands of "Junior Commandos," children who collect newspapers, scrap metal and other recyclable materials for the war effort.

1968: Strip creator Gray dies. The strip continues under other artists, goes into reruns in 1974 and is resurrected as "Annie" in 1979.

1977: "Annie" the musical opens on Broadway. It wins seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. It closes on Jan. 2, 1983 after 2,377 performances. It continues to be presented in local and touring productions around the world and Broadway revivals.

1982: The best-known film version of the musical, directed by John Huston and starring Albert Finney and Carol Burnett, is produced.

1995: "Little Orphan Annie" is commemorated in a U.S. postage stamp.

2009: Annie Presented by the Anchorage Concert Association in Atwood Concert Hall at 8 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Monday. Tickets are $48.50-$73.50 at centertix.net and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts box office, or call 263-2787. A 10 percent discount for seniors is available at all ticket locations. Discounts are available to all performances for groups of 20 or more by calling 272-1471. Comment on this review at adn.com/artsnob.

By LINDA BILLINGTON

lbillington@adn.com

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