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First let me confess, there’s almost no way I could dislike "I Remember Mama" - whatever form this warm and wonderful story takes.

My childhood memories of sitting in front of the television watching the Hanson’s old family album open and hearing the offstage voice intoning, "But most of all, I remember Mama," followed by a crescendo, are as comforting as chicken soup and a soft Teddy bear. And Peggy Wood, with her blonde braids wound round her head, and her comforting and calm voice, may have been the mother wished for by a generation of children.

The Heights Players’ current production follows John Van Druten’s stage adaptation of "Mama’s Bank Account," Kathryn Forbes’ collection of autobiographical short stories about an immigrant Norwegian family living in San Francisco in 1910. The production is somewhat rambling, unfocused and exhaustingly long. But it retains all the genuine sentiment and solid good sense that made the original play a Broadway hit in the war-torn 1940s and a long-running TV series in the years that followed.

Deborah Pautler, whom director Ted Thompson found when he was directing "Fuddy Meers" for the Gallery Players, plays Marta Hanson, mother to Katrin, Dagmar, Christine and Nels, and wife of Lars. It is Marta who cooks, cleans and provides moral, emotional and intellectual support for everyone else in the family. And just as it is Marta who holds the family together and ensures everyone’s success, it is Pautler who holds this play together and makes it work.

Pautler is a bit too young for the part, but she is so utterly believable that it’s easy to forget such a minor detail. She has the calm gestures and the gentle voice of a woman who is overworked but not overwhelmed, and the subtle sense of humor of someone determined to survive. Whatever the problem the Hansons face - an injured cat, a sick child or a dying uncle - Pautler makes the audience feel it is of vital and personal importance.

Pautler, however, does not work alone. She is surrounded by excellent supporting actors - Bob Doxsey as Lars Hanson; John Downing as Mr. Hyde, the Hanson’s boarder who is both a charlatan and an actor; and Michael Blake as the gruff but warmhearted Uncle Chris.

Erin Wade is Katrin, the aspiring writer upon whose memories the play is based. She does an impressive job as a self-absorbed and sensitive adolescent searching to find her place in the adult world. But it is the very nature of the role that in remembering her she is overshadowed by Mama - especially when the role is filled by such a formidable actress as Pautler.

A more experienced actress might have held her own better. But Wade shows much promise, and this reviewer would like to see more of her after this, her New York debut.

Forbes’ book was the source of not only a play (with Mady Christians as Mama and a young Marlon Brando as Nels) and a TV series, but also a 1948 movie (with Irene Dunne as Mama).

It isn’t hard to understand what gives this story its strong appeal. Who could resist this family with its loving mother, stolid father and close-knit extended family filled with people who are sometimes ridiculous but always relevant?

In fact, this play is so appealing that it manages to survive even though it has no real plot, no suspense and nothing to tie the many episodes together other than the love of the family and Katrin’s desire to write about it.

Like a good poem, "I Remember Mama" can have meaning without moving. But even a good poem may need editing. And Thompson might have done his audience, to say nothing of his actors, a good turn by exercising a bit of directorial license. He could have dropped any number of scenes and lost none of the flavor of the play.

Still, in a sick and troubled world, "I Remember Mama" is just what the doctor ordered. In 1944, America was in the midst of war and just recovering from the Great Depression. Today we are on the brink of war and in the midst of recession. In times of trouble, everyone needs a "Mama."

’Easy Street’

She doesn’t have big round eyes and curly hair. But young Lynda Senisi certainly has the plaintive, powerful voice and beseeching manners of the famous little orphan. And she’s the star of an energetic and charming revival of "Annie" now on stage at Brooklyn Family Theatre in Park Slope.

Annie is co-directed by Phill Greenland and Jonathan Valuckas, a team that brought us "The Pirates of Penzance" earlier this season. These masters of theatrical minimalism know how to make much of digitized music, cardboard scenery ("Annie" uses a scale model of New York City) and a few props - a chair, a trunk, a bottle of gin. They also certainly know how to choose their talent.

In addition to finding star material for the role of "Annie," they’ve also cast Jennifer Harrison as that quintessential harridan, Miss Hannigan, headmistress of the orphanage. I would have sworn Harrison was wearing a microphone, but was surprised and delighted to find out I was wrong. The voice that exploded into the furthest reaches of the Church of Gethsemane was the sole product of lungs and diaphragm.

Hector Coris is the conniving Rooster Hannigan and Tom Patterson is the awkward, generous Oliver Warbucks. Together they form a vivid and comical contrast of good and evil. Coris dances and swaggers. Patterson convincingly doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands.

Of course a script that has everything an audience could want - kids, a dog and Christmas - doesn’t hurt.

Based on Harold Gray’s "Little Orphan Annie" comic strip, "Annie" has a book by Thomas Meehan, lyrics by Martin Charnin and music by Charles Strouse. The musical follows Annie as she runs away from the orphanage looking for her parents, finds herself caught by a policeman, and is returned to the orphanage only to be chosen to spend Christmas with Daddy Warbucks, a billionaire even during those Depression years. Annie is so charming and spunky that she wins Warbucks’ heart and a place in his home forever. Talk about a rags to riches story!

The musical is also socially conscious. President Franklin Roosevelt (Jim Conmy) makes an appearance, robust in his wheelchair and brandishing his famous cigarette holder; as does his cabinet - Ickes, Perkins, Hull and Morganthau. They all try to figure out what is the best way to get the country out of its economic doldrums, and Annie so inspires Roosevelt that he comes up with the New Deal.

"Annie" has enough showstoppers to keep it running an extra 15 minutes on a good night. There’s the bluesy "Easy Street" (Coris, Harrison and Monica Anselm as Rooster’s girlfriend, Lily St. Regis ­ named after the hotel); the haunting "Maybe" (Senisi); the soft-shoe ensemble piece, "You’re Never Fully Dressed"; and the inspirational "Tomorrow" (belted out by Senisi).

Brooklyn Family Theatre doesn’t have the stage for big dance numbers, though they certainly had the talent: this past summer Senisi danced at the Metropolitan Opera House with the Kirov Ballet in "La Bayadere," and Anselm has recently been seen as Chorus Girl 3B in New York University’s main stage production of "Carousel." But in this case, a low-profile production only served to highlight the talent that was on stage.

Initially unable to find a Broadway producer, "Annie" opened at the Godspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. Mike Nichols saw the show there and brought it to the Alvin Theatre in April 1977 where it ran for 2,377 performances and won the Tony and Drama Critics’ Circle awards for best musical. ("Sex and the City’s" Sarah Jessica Parker played Annie.)

In 1982, the musical was turned into a film starring Aileen Quinn as Annie, Albert Finney as Oliver Warbucks and Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan.

Annie takes a nostalgic look at events that are far enough in the past to warrant nostalgia. Ask anyone who lived through the Depression and they will most assuredly find nothing amusing about selling apples in the street or living in one of those makeshift towns known as Hoovervilles, named after the president who famously saw "prosperity" around every corner.

In the musical, Warbucks is a lovable character, but Gray left no doubt where this prosperous industrialist got his money. And with all those billions on their side, naturally the good guys outwit (or is that outspend) the bad guys.

But let us not deal harshly with those who sanitized the little orphan and her escapades. Who knows how our children may look back on the scandals - in the White House and in the boardrooms - that rocked our decades? Far better to just sit back and enjoy.
"Annie" is a great show!

Chekhov it out

The Wooster Group’s production of "Brace Up!" now on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water St. at Dock Street in DUMBO, has extended its run through April 13. The avant-garde show, based on Anton Chekhov’s "Three Sisters," features actors Willem Dafoe and Kate Valk. For performance schedule, see Where to GO. For tickets, $30-$37.50, call (718) 858-2424.


The Heights Players’ production of "I Remember Mama" plays though March 22, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm, at 26 Willow Place, between Joralemon and State streets in Brooklyn Heights. Tickets are $20, $8 seniors and students. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752.

Brooklyn Family Theatre’s production of "Annie" runs through April 5, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 5 pm at the Church of the Gethsemane, 1012 Eighth Ave. at 10th Street in Park Slope. Tickets are $12. For reservations, call (718) 670-7205.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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