'Annie' still family-friendly fun

Every generation or so, a show comes along that captivates the kids while thoroughly entertaining the grownups in the audience. Musicals like "The Wizard of Oz" or "The Sound of Music" are prime examples.

Fitting comfortably into this category is "Annie," which first hit Broadway in 1977 and rang up a record number of performances (2,377) before closing in 1983. It's due to return to the Great White Way in 2012.

In the meantime, "Annie" is dreaming about "Tomorrow" at the Huntington Beach Playhouse, where director Stephen Reifenstein has assembled an impressive — in both quality and quantity — company to turn back the clock to the early 1930s (you think we've got it bad now?).

With Erik Przytulski guiding the company musically and Amanda Murphy supplying some creative choreography, especially with the orphans, this "Annie" is a lovable, laugh-inducing production, no matter how familiar its audience may be with the material. A show of hands at Friday's opening revealed several people who'd never seen the show before.

It all started with Harold Gray's comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" back in the 1930s (which only recently was discontinued) and centers on the feisty, red-haired 11-year-old girl (Kristen Powell in this production) plucked from an orphanage to spend the Christmas holidays with zillionaire Oliver Warbucks (Geoffrey Varga), who's somehow managed to thrive in the midst of the Depression.

For villainous comic relief, we have the orphanage warden, Miss Hannigan (Karen Merrill), whom everyone loves to hate, along with her con man brother Rooster (Jonathan Gopen) and his sultry sweetie Lily St. Regis ("like the hotel"), who's played by Bethany Hamrick.

Yet with all these attention grabbers, there's still plenty of room for scenic larceny, and Huntington Beach has an accomplished pair of felons in the forms of Nona Watson as Warbucks' super-nice secretary Grace and Olivia Aniceto, all six years of her, as the chirpy orphan Molly. Watson's operatically trained pipes handily steal the singing scenes, while Aniceto (double-cast, as are all the supporting orphans) neatly swipes the opening sequence with her cutesy bravado.

Powell brings a strong singing voice and a vibrant personality to the title role, while Varga at first seems too affable for a captain of industry, yet carries his assignment effectively. Merrill's Miss Hannigan predictably overshadows the others with her drunken soliloquies (her "Little Girls" lament is a howler), and she teams with Gopen and Hamrick for an energetic romp down "Easy Street."

Lewis Crouse, assigned the showy part of FDR for this weekend only, turned in a fine opening night performance filling in for the ailing John Francis. Others in the huge ensemble who shine in multiple roles include Mason Hall, Gavin Hall, Robert Purcell, Jeffrey Black and Glenda Wright.

Andrew Otero's multiple backdrops, engineered by Larry Shaughnessy, serve effectively as the scene shifts from the skids to Warbucks' mansion. Jon Hyrkas' lighting designs and Dan Baird's sound effects complete the atmospheric picture, along with some fine, creative costumes by Claudia Berglund.

"Annie" may be a familiar face to theatergoers, but in the Huntington Beach Playhouse production, she's still a welcome visitor, along with Powell's own golden retriever, who contributes a cute cameo as Sandy. Don't wait till "Tomorrow" to catch this show.

If You Go

What: "Annie"

Where: Huntington Beach Playhouse, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through July 25

Cost: $18 to $20

Info: (714) 375-0696

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