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Paramount’s ‘Annie’ draws from history books, not funny pages

Caroline Heffernan (center red) doesn’t wear usual curls title role “Annie” Paramount Theatre.

Caroline Heffernan (center, in red) doesn’t wear the usual curls in the title role of “Annie” at the Paramount Theatre.

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When: Through Dec. 30

Where: Paramount Theatre,
23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

Tickets: $34.90-$46.90

Info: (630) 896-6666;

Updated: December 27, 2012 6:09AM

The powers that be on Broadway would do well to pay a visit to the Paramount Theatre in Aurora in the next few weeks. While the New York revival of “Annie” appears to have fallen rather flat, the Paramount edition, directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell — that brilliant, insightful, mistress-of-grand-scale musicals packed with heart and smarts — has revealed the show’s true genius.

Without a single tweak, this production easily could become a national touring edition of “Annie.” At the very least, the show should be transplanted to a major Loop house in a move even that high-powered mogul, Daddy Warbucks, would say has financial potential.

And if the Broadway bunch can’t make it here (pride and politics always take their toll), the wheelers and dealers of Washington, D.C. might want to take a peek at this show — the Depression era story inspired by Harold Gray’s popular comic strip, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and a book by Thomas Meehan. Its scenes of contentious Democrats and Republicans arguing over how to save the country from its economic crisis (circa 1933), could have been written yesterday.

So, just what is it that Rockwell does that makes all the difference in the world when spinning the tale of the ever-optimistic 11-year-old orphan (the astonishing Caroline Heffernan stars as Annie), who hopes against all hope that her parents will reclaim her, and instead finds a loving surrogate father in Daddy Warbucks?

First, from the moment the overture begins (with music director Evan Rea leading a large and expert orchestra), she takes the story seriously without ever dimmiing its comic elements. With the help of her inspired set designer, Linda Buchanan (the stage equivalent of both architect and city planner), and projections maestro Mike Tutaj (who has delved deeply into the photo archives of Depression-era New York), she has created a strong historical context for the show. The choreographer in her sees to it that every scene moves with meaning and fluidity. And she has cast every role with a fresh eye.

Best of all, Rockwell is an absolute magician with child performers, as she demonstrated earlier in “The Sound of Music.” And in “Annie,” with its title character and dual casts of six orphans each, she has worked miracles, blending enchanting spontaneity with wholly masterful technique. These kids are amazingly talented and confident. And Heffernan (whose softly red hair is silky and straight, rather than the usual comic book curly mop) is a natural leader. With her seductive voice, precise diction, easeful and sophisticated acting, fine gymnastic skills and terrific relationship with her larger-than-usual dog, Sandy, she is the most engaging of stars.

Tiny, exuberant Marieclaire Popernik is a hoot as Molly, with Sydney Poss, Phoebe Ann Paslaski, Haley Noll, Emma Gordon and Peyton Shaffer as the rest of the exceptional orphan cast I saw on Saturday.

And then there is Christine Sherrill, the Chicago diva finally getting her full due. A leggy beauty with a va-va-va-voom figure, a knockout belt voice and great acting chops, she is the best Miss Hannigan ever as she gives us a dream-denied woman with a cruel streak and a serious alcoholic problem. Sherrill, who rips into her big number, “Little Girls,” with delicious rage, will be seen next as Norma Desmond in the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre production of “Sunset Boulevard.”)

As Daddy Warbucks, Gene Weygandt gives us a very real self-made man who suddenly realizes he has ignored his heart. Spared the usual comic book bald-headed look, he sports a silvery mane that makes him real. And Weygandt taps both the steel and warmth in Warbucks, with patrician Emily Rohm lovely as his mostly overlooked assistant, Grace Farrell.

Joining Sherrill for the rousing “Easy Street” number are the powerhouse team of Jake Klinkhammer, as Miss Hannigan’s lowlife brother, Rooster, and Maggie Portman, as his partner in crime. Additional winning turns come from Brian Michael Hoffman, Rebecca Pink, Holly Stauder, Larry Adams, Don Richard and many others in this show’s massive cast.

Now in just its second season as an independent producer of Broadway-quality musicals, the Paramount already has attracted 19,000 subscribers. See “Annie” and you will understand why that number is bound to grow exponentially.

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