‘Annie’ at Paper Mill Playhouse. (Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)
By Ryan Leeds
Annie is back. The 1977 Tony Award-winning musical by Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, and Martin Charnin is currently enjoying a holiday residency at Paper Mill Playhouse. The verdict? To paraphrase one of its songs: “I think you’re gonna like it here.”
The perennial, Depression-era classic is a tried and true favorite among school, community and regional theaters. It has also seen plenty of revivals on Broadway, in the West End, and around the world. According to a New York Times estimation, it has been produced 700-900 times in the United States.
Director Mark Hoebee’s joyful production reminds us why we return to this charming tale time and again. Fewer shows display such a scrappy, determined attitude of overcoming odds in the midst of life’s bumps and bruises.
Cassidy Pry and Peyton Ella share the titular role (Pry played the part at this performance.) Her Annie often lacks vocal restraint and she tends toward yelling most of her songs—including the pensive and reflective “Maybe.” However, she more than makes up for this with enthusiastic acting.
Of all the fellow orphans, 9-year-old Tessa Noelle Frascogna is the one to watch. Her sassy impersonation of Miss Hannigan (Beth Leavel) is brief, but adorably spunky. Even more remarkable is that she is marking her theatrical debut. Her comic instincts at such a young age are truly impressive.
Speaking of comedic genius, let’s talk about Beth Leavel. This Tony Award-winning actor is one of the absolute finest comedians working in musical theater right now. With an authoritative whistle and a wardrobe that (in slang terms) might be described as ‘ratchet,’ she relishes every single bit and makes this iconic role completely her own. “Little Girls” is her biggest number but every moment she is on stage is worth savoring.
Cooper Grodin and Kim Sava join Leavel in the roles of Rooster and Lily, respectively. These conniving scam artists hatch a plot to cash in on Annie’s misfortune. The trio is clearly having the time of their lives in the jazz-infused “Easy Street.”
Broadway vet Christopher Sieber commands the stage with GOP bluster and bravado as Oliver Warbucks. The sturdy baritone particularly shines in one of the catchiest and finest love letter songs to Manhattan, “NYC.”
There is quite a bit of reality suspension to fully embrace Annie. The characters are completely over the top and cartoonish in nature. Their schemes and interactions with one another often strain plausibility. Then again, it was derived from Harold Gray’s comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, so it is easy to overlook. Meehan, Strouse, and Charnin were smart to cut through the silliness of the source material in order to find the true heart of the story. The result not only exemplifies the human spirit but also manages to subtly demonstrate political bi-partisanship. Warbucks, a diehard Republican is willing to open his gorgeous Fifth Avenue home to Democratic president FDR (Allen Kendall). With the current state of political discourse in Washington, DC, it does seem to be a quixotic notion. And yet, like our leading player, we continue to hold hope that better days and respectful civility are possible.
Beowulf Borritt’s set is a magnificent contrast between the slum-like, downtrodden orphanage and the affluent Warbucks home. His additional cityscapes are also a marvel. Suzy Benzinger’s costumes distinctly differentiate the social classes. For the well-to-do, suits and gowns adorn the stage. For the cash-strapped, simple patterns on tattered dresses abound. Hannigan’s multi-colored, campy outfits carve a style of their own—one that might be described as “Early Elton John meets Pennywise the Clown.” Joann Hunter’s choreography is spritely and animated, keeping the action moving along at a brisk pace. Animal trainer William Berloni also deserves a special mention for his work with Annie’s dog, Sandy—a rescue dog named Macy.
Between this lovable canine, a determined orphan, irresistible villains, and an infectiously fun score conducted with flair by Jeffrey Saver, this family-friendly Annie is a bonafide crowd pleaser.
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Through December 31
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.