North Carolina Theatre
At Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
Through Aug. 1

On June 13, Little Orphan Annie ended its 86-year run on newspaper comics pages, finishing on yet another cliffhanger as the eponymous blank-eyed foundling is held captive by the “Butcher of the Balkans.” At this point, fewer than 20 newspapers still carried the strip.

Even with the strip gone (IDW Publishing has reprinted it in chronological omnibus editions), Harold Gray’s character has long outlived her Depression-era heyday, thanks to the nostalgic 1977 musical. With a new Broadway revival due in 2012, North Carolina Theatre’s production of Annie is a reminder of why the character and the concept remain so endearingand oddly relevant.

This particular production is steeped in Annie lore: Not only did director Casey Hushion play Annie as a child, but Andrea McArdle, who originated the title role in the 1977 Broadway production, steps in as the villainous Miss Hannigan. Hushion sticks to the original book by Thomas Meehan, restoring several numbers deleted from the 1982 film and the 1999 made-for-TV version, as well as the “Annie Junior” play for younger actresses. The result is that Depression-era referencesnow unfortunately fashionable againbecome more apparent in the story. Annie runs away to a shantytown whose residents decry Herbert Hoover in a production number, while Franklin Roosevelt (Eric Michael Gillett) plays a major role in the plot. Frequent references are made to the bad economy, the looming war and the sense of hopelessness, and Annie’s optimism helps inspire the New Deal.

Ironically, this is the opposite message of the original comic strip, whose creator detested Roosevelt and his policies. But in addition to cute kids, famous songs and retro references aided by Kenneth Foy’s evocative New York sets, these touches give Annie a sense of darkness, as well as a kid-positive way of overcoming this world.

The performances are all winning: English Bernhardt is suitably plucky as Annie, while McArdle’s Hannigan has a sultriness that evokes Bernadette Peters, who appeared in the 1982 film playing a different role. Another imported actor, Robert Newman, plays Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (Newman is best known for Guiding Light; from my college days of daytime drama watching, I recall Newman to be convincing even when his love interest is a clone, a ghost or an Amish). Newman, a pro and a ham, plays Warbucks as an overgrown kid and gets in what seems like a swipe at a neighboring town’s fancy new performing arts center with the quip, “After New York, every other place is just … Durham.”

Though it’s still two years before the updated Annie opens on Broadway, this production reminds us why a redhead with no visible eyes inspired massive merchandising, a classic radio show, the Jay-Z remake of “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and secret decoding devices that let radio listeners translate such missives as “16 4 21 26 23 18 13 24 6 21 16 17.” [To solve, arrange letters A–Z and numbers 1–26 so A = 13. See answer below!]

And the sold-out audience, mostly parents with little girls, seemed to embrace itone young lass loudly proclaimed Annie “totally cool” as she exited. Perhaps the world still needs plucky orphans. Now if only someone could rescue Annie from her last cliffhanger.

Answer: Drink Ovaltine