Kylee Hope Geraci leads the talented youths cast in ‘Annie.’

Little Orphan Annie made her début in Harold Gray’s comic strip in 1924, and almost 100 years later, this spirited redhead continues to inspire people’s hopes for a better tomorrow.

“Annie,” now onstage at Riverside, is a sweet, feel-good family show. As the first few notes of the musical’s overture start to trickle out, it’s hard not to smile and feel nostalgic about the beloved 1982 film starring Aileen Quinn as the effervescent streetwise redhead. Movie lovers will notice some differences in the musical version featuring a book by Thomas Meehan (no scary bridge scene), but overall, one thing’s for certain: This story about an optimistic orphan in search of her parents has a big heart.

Producing artistic director Patrick A’Hearn is back in the director’s seat for this family-friendly treat, a nice warmup to the holiday season and full of familiar faces. Sally Struthers returns to the Riverside stage to play Miss Agatha Hannigan, the loopy bottle-loving orphanage warden who doesn’t (gasp) like kids. And the Emmy-winning actress knows Aggie like the back of her hand, having performed the role on Broadway and on the road, and all the nooks and crannies to mine for additional laughs. A few times the humor’s over-the-top, but Struthers can really serve up those zingers (“ho, ho, ho”—emphasis on that last “ho”).

Playing everyone’s favorite 11-year-old redheaded orphan is Kylee Hope Geraci, an 11-year-old from Alexandria. Kylee delivers a cheery winsome performance, more tender than tough, and connects with audiences from the get-go as she sings the misty-eyed tune “Maybe,” as Annie dreams about having her family again with the other orphans tuning in.

Christopher Sanders is another returning actor, although maybe not as recognizable. He was last seen as Georges in Riverside’s “La Cage aux Folles,” but this time, Sanders went full-on Albert Finney and shaved his head for Daddy Warbucks. As with his performance in that show, Sanders is a commanding presence and his vocals continue to impress, especially in the heartwarming song “Something Was Missing.” His scenes with Kylee are touching to watch, as a father-and-daughter relationship begins to emerge.

Katie Little is lovely as Warbucks’ classy secretary Grace Farrell, a polar opposite to the not-so-polished Miss Hannigan, and Stephen Sorrentino is a hoot as radio announcer Bert Healy, one of his many characters. The energetic ensemble also includes several talented kids, who delightfully bring Stephanie Wood’s fun choreography to life.

Probably, the biggest complaint with this production: Sandy could have used more stage time. The role of Annie’s adorable scene-stealing pooch is rotated between Sir Mac Allan Burch Esq. and Sir Gustafson Lyle Doolittle.

Frank Foster’s scenic design, enhanced by James Morrison’s vintage B&W projections and Kyna Chilcot’s costumes, nicely capture New York City during the Depression era, December 1933 to be exact.

“Annie” may seem forever ago, but there are times when the story feels strikingly familiar. When Warbucks and Annie visit the White House, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his cabinet members talk of strikes and riots, possible war, unemployment and natural disasters—topics that are very much eating today’s headlines. Can you imagine our own leader singing “the sun’ll come out tomorrow”?

What the world needs now is a big smile and there’s plenty to go around with Riverside’s richly entertaining production of “Annie.”

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