"ANNIE," national tour, through April 13, Kingsbury Hall, U. (581-7100 ), running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (15 intermission)

A long stretch bubble gum pink limousine pulled away from Kingsbury Hall, and nonstop chatter followed me inside as I listened to two little girls talk about why they wore their red dresses to opening night of "Annie."

It was clear: The red-headed orphan is still exciting and little girls still "want to be her."

Based on the popular Harold Gray comic strip, "Little Orphan Annie," the Broadway musical opened on Broadway in 1977, won seven Tony Awards and continues to be one of the most popular musicals internationally.

This national tour is better than the last "Annie" that came to Salt Lake City, which completely lacked charm. The charm is back, mostly in the performances of Amanda Balon (Annie) and the rest of the cast.

Balon's Annie is just what you want her to be — cute, spunky and energetic, with a strong, belty voice. The rest of the orphans are darling as well but often, eagerly, over-pronounce words making it difficult to understand at times.

Orphan group numbers were the highlight of the show. "It's the Hard Knock Life" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," were crowd favorites.

The adult cast did a good job, too. David Barton, was very likeable as Daddy Warbucks, and Lynn Andrews got quite a few laughs as drunken, mean Miss Hannigan. She had a great singing voice, too, making "Little Girls" a rather nice song to listen to.

But, the tour has cut some corners. It's hard for producers to mount shows like "Annie," with its numerous locations, including Times Square, The Oval Office, Daddy's Warbucks mansion, street scenes and, the orphanage.

This show has actors stand in front of painted backdrops in virtually every scene rather than having actual set pieces. This two-dimensional world, which looks a lot like the comic strip at times, gets a little dull to watch. When sets were used, award-winning Ming Cho Lee's designs looked great, there just weren't enough of them.

Also missing are big group dance numbers, and I think folks expect them. But the Warbucks' staff and street dwellers don't do much movement at all.

The movie adaptation is different than the stage show. Act II takes a slow turn when Annie visits the White House to have FDR discussing politics, the depression, what was happening in Germany in the '30s, and our country being on the brink of war.

Looking around, it seems the kids didn't find FDR's New Deal as much fun as watching Annie and Sandy. Though adults seemed to chuckle at the period references and the portrayal of the president.

Another difference, Sandy isn't as integral in the stage show — though when on stage, Sandy received plenty of "Aaaahhhs."

Walking out of the theater at 10:15 p.m. makes the show a pretty late night out on a school night, but the kids didn't seem to mind.

The audience gave a standing ovation, cheered exuberantly, and the kids skipped their way out of the building.

All in all, "Annie" is a fun night and a great way for some mother- or daddy-daughter bonding (oh, the boys liked it, too!)

Sensitivity rating: Mild swear words and drinking.

E-mail: ehansen@desnews.com