Book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin
Based on “Little Orphan Annie”
Through Dec. 31
Check schedule for audio-described, open-captioned,
sensory-friendly and autism- friendly performance
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn
By GWEN OREL
Song after song is catchy. Singer after singer belts beautifully. The costumes are colorful, the sets gorgeous, the lighting deep. Even the dog is cute.
But “Annie” is more than an upbeat musical.
The Paper Mill production, directed by Paper Mill’s Artistic Director Mark Hoebee, not only reflects optimism, it inspires it.
The 1977 Broadway musical, which won seven Tony Awards, offers political commentary. It ran for six years. Opening just a few years after Watergate, the show came during a time of malaise in America, and in Manhattan (remember the 1975 headline: Ford to City: “Drop Dead”).
Yes, it is a holiday show — the premise of the musical is that billionaire Oliver Warbucks adopts an orphan for the Christmas holidays.
Everyone needs a little nostalgia infused with hope.
Paper Mill Playhouse’s opening night audience was full of excited little girls in Uggs and party dresses. But there’s also a scene with a bunch of hobos thanking Herbert Hoover. (In fact, this reporter learned what a Hooverville was from the soundtrack to this musical.)
There’s a scene with F.D.R. and his cabinet, fretting about unemployment, the depression, and Hitler’s gathering forces. Then Annie sings “Tomorrow” and before you know it, there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. The cabinet suddenly come up with the Works Progress Administration.
There’s even a song called “A New Deal for Christmas.” It’s sung by Mr. Warbucks, who earlier wondered what Democrats eat.
The musical is based on the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” by Harold Gray, which ran from 1924 to 2010 (Gray died in 1968, but others drew the strip).
It’s incredibly comforting to see an America so badly off and know that it will all turn out all right.
In 1977, many in the audience would remember the ’30s — it was only as distant then as the ’70s are now. So some of the in jokes, like F.D.R. shouting “On Morgenthau!” during “A New Deal for Christmas,” may elude children today — but that’s what a teachable moment is for.
And it would be hard to find a sweeter medicine for a little history: after what seems like every 10 lines of dialogue comes another terrific song. “Maybe.” “Tomorrow.” “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” “Easy Street.”
Cassidy Pry makes a lovable, outspoken heroine, with her “aw, gee” when she’s disappointed, and a huge singing voice. She’s all arms and legs, as an 11-year-old should be, and her forthright “Hello, Mr. President” wins everyone over. As corrupt, drunken orphan mistress Miss Hannigan, Tony-winner Beth Leavel (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Elf,” “Baby, It’s You”) shows star power, throwing herself on the floor to scream, or moping about “Little Girls.” All the orphans are adorable (and terrific singers), but tiny Tessa Noelle Frascogna, as little Molly who cries for mommy, steals every scene she’s in.
As Grace Farrell, Erin Mackey (winning in Paper Mill’s 2014 “South Pacific”) infuses Warbucks’ kindly secretary with an element of angel. When Warbucks sees her in her blue dress and notices how pretty she is, one can only hope.
As the billionaire with a heart of platinum, Christopher Sieber (on Broadway in “Pippin,” “Shrek,” “Matilda”) shows sweet befuddlement with the outspoken child. If only all billionaires were this kindly. He sings the hymn to Manhattan, “NYC,” which includes the breathtaking solo by the “Star to Be,” Anneliza Canning-Skinner, who dreams of a penthouse: “That’s way up high, Tonight the ‘Y.’ Why not? It’s NYC.”
Beowulf Borit’s sets are evocative of both the comic strip and old New York (his name could mean the show is destined for Broadway; Borit designed “A Bronx Tale,” which transferred, as well as “Act One” and Come from Away,” among many others). Original costume design by Suzy Benzinger, with costume design for Paper Mill by Leon Dobkowski, includes gowns for a Ginger Rogers type twirling across the stage. It’s a nice touch when the orphans visit the Warbucks’ estate that they’re all wearing dresses made of the same two bolts of fabric. The score, as noted, is gorgeous, and played by a lovely orchestra of 13 (by the program count). There are soaring solos throughout.
And Charlie Morrison’s lights show sunset over the city, under a bridge, through an estate window. Joann M. Hunter’s choreography is often hilarious; Warbucks’ happy staff literally skip and hop.
Hoebee’s direction pulls it all together, highlighting the political commentary without ever losing sight of the fairy tale. And as any fairy tale should, it has a happy ending.