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Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

The touring production of Annie currently parked at the Theater at Madison Square Garden must rank as one of very few in which the most notable redhead is not 11 years old. That's not a criticism of Marissa O'Donnell, who's doing decently as the title's spunky orphan who strikes it rich when she meets and enraptures a world-famous billionaire. But looking at the cover of the MSG program, O'Donnell's is not the name you see.

No, the billed star here is Kathie Lee Gifford, who's stepped into the plum role of disagreeable orphanage doyenne Miss Hannigan for the New York run, which lasts through December 30. The reasons for this are not entirely clear: Were the producers in need of someone with Gifford's proven, world-class comedy chops to fill the shoes of the role's legendary originator, Dorothy Loudon? Or perhaps Gifford's unparalleled marquee name value was needed to sell this obscure, forgotten show written by nobodies (Thomas Meehan wrote the book, Charles Strouse the music, and Martin Charnin the lyrics) with no film versions, a roster of forgettable songs, and a complete lack of family appeal?

Whatever. Gifford's performance, while nothing special, is adequate. If she's not a first-tier belter, and if her comedic attack on Hannigan's juicy quips and even juicier songs (the acidic "Little Girls," the nastily joyous "Easy Street") is unfocused, she gets through it admirably. And there's an undeniable pleasure in seeing a woman who's spent much of her recent career cultivating her "nice" persona (from her TV work on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee to her own musicals, like 2005's Under the Bridge) wallow about in the mud for two and a half hours.

I can't say, though, she's a noticeable improvement over Alene Robertson, whom I saw do the role at the production's Los Angeles stop last year. (Robertson is billed as Gifford's standby, and will almost certainly reassume the role when the tour heads out again.) This production's replacing one acceptable if unexceptional performer with another (whose name is the sole reason to recommend her) says as much about this Annie as anything else in it. Directed by Martin Charnin, who also helmed the original Broadway mounting 29 years ago, is awash in niggly changes that make things different without making them better.

These range from the obvious - adding a pace-pummeling dance break to the jaunty "N.Y.C."; rearranging the second-act Christmas celebration, in which Annie appears in her red-dress-curly-hair getup for the first time, from one fluid musical scene into two sloppier numbers - to the subtler but more deadly, such as overplaying broad humor rather than seeking out the even funnier truth; when one member of President Roosevelt's cabinet goes all Al Jolson over "Tomorrow" when he gets to sing it, something is wrong. At least the sharp-edged political content, including the bitter (and often-excised) "We'd Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover," has been retained to give the show some of the grittiness and sense of place and time it's too often missing.

But nothing - I repeat, nothing - can prevent Annie from playing. If this production isn't as funny as it thinks it is, it's still got a lot more going for it than most of what passes for musical comedy today. The curmudgeonly Republican moneycrat Oliver Warbucks (Conrad John Schuck), who melts under Annie's gaze and inspires President Roosevelt (an overeager Allan Baker) to create the New Deal. Tremendous child performers as the other orphans; Anastasia Korbal, for one, is another superb member of the decades-long line of scene-stealing Mollys. The lively Peter Gennaro choreography, lovingly recreated by his daughter Liza. That score, of course, from the infectious "Tomorrow" to the wishing "Maybe" and the fun-filled "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," played by a great orchestra under Keith Levenson's baton. Even this production's scenic design, by Ming Cho Lee, skewers reality with sharp angles and dull colors that give way to verdant greens for the enormous house that Warbucks's money built.

With the exception of Schuck, who's been honing his Warbucks to perfection since he was a replacement in the original production and is very fine here, the performances are all over the funny pages. Scott Willis and Ashley Puckett Gonzales would be more threatening and more entertaining as Hannigan's greasy cohorts if they toned down their underhanded underworld-dweller shtick, and Elizabeth Broadhurst sacrifices some warm likeability as Warbucks's devoted secretary with all the corny filigree she's added to the character.

And what of that other redhead, the shorter one? O'Donnell's a surprisingly affecting actress for her age, and really scores in tender scenes that give the show its heart. Her singing, though, has a stridency that makes her sound like the overtrained show-biz kid her spoken scenes convincing you she's not. Her "Tomorrow," in particular, while powerfully put across, is sung like O'Donnell knows she's been handed a sure-fire showstopper.

Of course she has. And there's not much to do about it except sit back, accept it as one of the built-in flaws with this otherwise flawless family show, and enjoy the ride. Even in this less-than-ideal production, there's no end of ride to enjoy.

Through December 30
Theater at Madison Square Garden, 4 Penn Plaza
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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