Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley
Based on the daily comic strip "Little Orphan Annie" which debuted in 1924, the musical is set in Depression era New York City and tells the story of 11-year-old Annie and her rescue from a city orphanage and Miss Hannigan, its despicable matron, by billionaire Oliver ("Daddy") Warbucks and his amanuensis Grace Farrell, along with the heroic efforts of Warbucks and Farrell to help Annie find the parents who abandoned her at the orphanage door a decade before. Lightly touching on the politics that were a considerable presence in the strip, the musical's depictions of the Depression and President Franklin Roosevelt add considerable heft to the proceedings. It is notable that the door remains shut to opportunities to turn this material into fodder for the bitter political divisiveness plaguing us today.
Director Mark S. Hoebee has assembled a top level, veteran Broadway cast. Christopher Sieber steals the show in the role of Oliver Warbucks. His strong presence, growing suavity, and smooth vocal musicality make the role into a star turn which should be seen by all, including those who regard themselves to be unsusceptible to Annie's charms.
As Miss Hannigan, Beth Leavel brings vocal accuracy and power to her vocals and energy and precision to her portrayal of the comedic villain. Leavel does not yet display the sly and subtle comedic touches that make Hannigan delightfully funny as she is being a scold to Annie. Erin Mackey is a warm and winning presence as Grace Farrell. Cooper Grodin (Rooster Hannigan), Kim Sava (Lili St. Regis), David Hess (Drake), and Kevin Pariseau (FDR) all make strong contributions to the production's success. In fact, praise is due to the entire adult cast, all of whom play various supporting roles.
Cassidy Pry as Annie pushes too hard both in her vocals and dialogue (Peyton Ella alternates with her in the title role). A special delight are the young performers who play Annie's orphanage companions. Their song and dance reprise of "You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile" is exhilarating and delightful. Kudos are due to choreographer Joann M. Hunter for her outstanding work here.
Director Mark S. Hoebee has given us a spiffy, lively and full-scale revival which harks back to the original Broadway production. The credits read in part: Original Scenic Design Beowulf Boritt, Scenic Coordinator Jared Rutherford, Original Costume Design Suzy Benzinger, Costume Design for Paper Mill Playhouse Leon Dobkowski.
As to those Annie charms that I mentioned, they are considerable and likely too easily forgotten. There is a charming modesty and ease to the scope and style to the superbly integrated libretto and music, which makes it easy to overlook just how superior Annie is. The high quality and emotional content of the storytelling; the intelligence and volume of the humor; the bright, straightforward, clever, but never showy, lyrics; the character, easy flow, and seeming simplicity of a non-insistent (with the exception of "Tomorrow"), consistently bright and bouncy score all make for a superb show which is all the better for a lack of grandiosity. To achieve this enormous success, Charles Strouse (music), particularly, and his collaborators Thomas Meehan (book), and project originator Martin Charnin (lyrics, original director) took a remarkably self-effacing approach.
Annie continues performances (Evenings: Tuesday (12/19 and 12/26 only); Wednesday through Sunday (except Sunday 12/24 and 12/31) 7 pm/ Matinees: Wednesday (12/27 only), Friday (12/29 only): Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) (except Sunday 12/24, 12/31 and Thursday 12/28) through December 31, 2017, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.