A Modestly Beguiling Musical

Though it lacks the emotional punch of its predecessor, Off-Broadway's 'Annie Warbucks' offers cheer

ANNIE WARBUCKS. Written by Thomas Meehan. Score composed by Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin. At the Variety Arts Theater in Greenwich Village until Jan. 2.

WHEN the curtain rises at the beginning of "Annie Warbucks" and the cheap-looking Christmas tree backdrop comes into view, you feel a strange sort of sadness. In spirit, tone, and intention, this show - the sequel to "Annie," one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever - belongs on the Great White Way, not in a 499-seat Off-Broadway house on lower Third Avenue.

But, as the creative team discovered, Broadway isn't what Broadway used to be even a decade ago. As one of the first songs suggests, "Annie Ain't Just Annie Anymore." The well-documented travails behind the making of this production would probably make a show in themselves.

Nevertheless, "Annie Warbucks" is a perfectly reasonable effort, nothing for its creators to be ashamed of. If it is, at most times, a pale imitation of the original, that is simply evidence that creative lightning doesn't always strike twice.

The story picks up within moments of where "Annie" ends, with her happily ensconced in Daddy Warbucks's mansion. The happiness doesn't last long, as Miss Doyle, an officious child-welfare commissioner, arrives to inform the group that the adoption will be null and void unless Warbucks finds a wife who will be a suitable mother for Annie.

This sequel should really be called "Daddy Warbucks," since much of the fun lies in Harve Presnell's wonderfully comic deadpan performance as the emotionally bufuddled millionaire trying to cope with these messy, nonfinancial demands being placed upon him.

Of course, the obvious candidate that he manages to overlook is his loyal, beautiful, personal assistant, Grace Farrell (Marguerite MacIntyre). Instead, after a series of disastrous dates, he settles upon Miss Kelly (Donna McKechnie), a widow who works for Miss Doyle and who shares his Hell's Kitchen roots. Annie, upset over all the commotion she has caused, runs away, causing a national search headed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The story is a serviceable one, and apparently a huge improvement over the first version of the sequel, "Annie II," which met a disastrous reception around the country (and never made it to New York). There is even a plot twist that manages to be a real surprise.

But for all the tinkering, this continuation doesn't have the emotional resonance of the original, and the villain of the piece (not to be revealed here) is no Miss Hannigan. Thomas Meehan's book does manage to work in a fair number of laughs (although a White House scene involving FDR is remarkably stilted), and Martin Charnin's direction moves things along sprightly. He has not lost his touch with children; although there is only a handful of orphans on display here, they are a delight, and Peter Genna ro provides some amusing choreography for them in their big dance number. Big numbers are, by necessity, infrequent in this production, but "All Dolled Up," does raise the excitement level in Act II.

The score by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin offers many pleasures. If there are no "Tomorrows" here, there are no clinkers either; from uptempo numbers to the moving ballads "A Younger Man" (beautifully performed by Presnell) and "It Would Have Been Wonderful" (destined to be a cabaret staple), the music is consistently tuneful and the lyrics display the Charnin wit.

AS Annie, Kathryn Zaremba is a pint-sized dynamo with a booming voice who is more than up to the task. Alene Robertson procures many laughs as the scheming Commissioner Doyle, as do Harvey Evans and Molly Scott as a down-and-out rural couple who befriend Annie when she runs away. It's a pleasure to have Donna McKechnie in a real musical again, even if she only gets one real occasion to kick up her heels (in the spirited "Leave It to the Girls").

But the real star of the evening (no, not Cindy Lou as Sandy the dog, although the canine doesn't miss a cue) is Presnell, who plays Warbucks with a combination of dignity and bufoonishness that manages to be wonderfully moving and funny.

At the end of the show, when everything, of course, turns out to be all right, the significant joy we feel is because of his redemption, not Annie's.

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