Annie Revival Makes for a Very Merry and Jolly Tinsel-coated Revival at Paper Mill Playhouse
By: Ellis Nassour
The holiday season has arrived for Paper Mill Playhouse audiences with a gaily-wrapped Christmas present under a tinseled tree. It’s the sumptuous revival of Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s Tony-winning Best Musical Annie. Just as they pulled a rabbit out of their collective hat this time last year with the North American premiere of The Bodyguard, producing artistic director Mark Hoebee and managing director Todd Schmidt, have done it again with a sterling production of “the world’s best-loved family musical” – one filled with whopping sentiment, hilarity, and beloved tunes fit for the entire family.
The vastness of Paper Mill’s stage, which comes extremely close to rivaling Radio City Music Hall’s, and set designers desire to fill it all the way Left and Right, has worked against many a show. But this isn’t one of those occasions.
Adapted from Harold Gray’s classic comic strip, Little Orphan Annie by the late three-time Tony-winner Thomas Meehan (The Producers, Hairspray — and Young Frankenstein, enjoying quite a successful London revival), it’s Great Depression and we find red-headed moppet Annie, the eldest child at the New York Municipal Orphanage, has never given up hope her parents, who dropped her off 11 years earlier, are coming for her. To search the streets and “Hoovervilles” (camps of the downtrodden) of NYC in the hope of finding them she becomes quite adept at escaping the drudgery of the hard-knock-life – only to be caught and returned to the clutches of cruel, heavy-drinking, slovenly Miss Hannigan. In a twist of fate, billionaire industrialist, world traveler, art collector, and name-dropper of just about everyone famous in the 30s, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, in a benevolent gesture, decides to pick an orphan to spend a Christmas like no other.
At his Fifth Avenue mansion, Annie warms not only his heart, but the hearts of his secretary Grace Farrell, butlers, maids, even FDR, who’s finding ways to put Americans back to work. Warbucks engages Eliot Ness and the FBI in a search for Annie’s parents and offers $50,000 so they can start a new life. Hannigan’s brother, Rooster, straight out of the slammer, abetted by his moll Lily concocts a plan to capture the biggest prize of their tawdry lives. But …
Hoebee, a seasoned director (credits at Paper Mill alone include: Dreamgirls, Hello, Dolly!, High School Musical, Mary Poppins, Miss Saigon, and among numerous others, The King and I and West Side Story), also helms this production.
He’s assembled a huge cast of 30 plus, headlined by two Paper Mill favorites: indefatigable Tony-winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone; at Paper Mill and on Broadway in Bandstand and, in a long and storied career, as record executive Florence Greenberg in Baby It’s You (Tony nomination) as that stinker Miss Hannigan and Tony-nominee Christopher Sieber (Tony nominations, Spamalot and Shrek, later in Matilda as harsh, bombastic educator Miss Trunchbull) as Warbucks.
You might wonder, “Another Annie? Why?”
The Broadway original inspired two main stem revivals, at least four national tours, two stage sequels, a musical film, TV adaptation, a horrible, somewhat-based-on musical movie set in contemporary times, countless local productions, and Paper Mill’s 1983 and 2002 productions – to name but a few.
The answer is simple: Leavel’s Miss Hannigan, a role she was born to play and one she inhibits with pratfalls, slapstick, and face-twisting antics; Sieber, whose amply-endowed outsized voice and steady hand offer just the reassurance needed in hard times; and it’s the perfect time of year to be lifted out of the doldrums with Strouse and Charnin’s score. Who doesn’t need to be assured that the sun’ll come out tomorrow?
Add two adorable, spirited ‘’orphan” heartbreakers as alternating Annies: Cassidy Pry [who performed opening night, January 26) and Peyton Ella [who got to join the company for bows opening night]. Season it with a brood of sassy, rambunctious orphan pests: Gabby Beredo (Pepper), Michelle Henderson (Duffy), Eve Johnson (Tessie), Lauren Sun (July), Sloane Wolfe (Kate), and pint-sized (nine-years-old) scene-stealing dynamo Tessa Noelle Frascogna (Molly), who also proves to be quite an acrobat.
Co-starring are Erin Mackey (Paper Mill: South Pacific; In Transit, Amazing Grace) portrays “Daddy” Warbuck’s secretary Grace Farrell; Cooper Grodin (Les Miz; title role, national tour Phantom), Rooster Hannigan, Miss Hannigan’s brother straight-out-of-the slammer and ready to do no good; abetted by Lily St. Regis, portrayed by Kim Sava (Matilda); and Kevin Pariseau is Franklin D. Roosevelt.
There are nice moments for featured cast members, such as Allen Kendall, in one of his four roles, radio personality Bert Healy, and his rendition of “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” along with the program’s Boylan Sisters (Bronwyn Tarboton, Kate Marilley, and belter-who-needs-no-amplication Anneliza Canning-Skinner). Wait: there’s one more: Macy, the rescue dog as Sandy (a role she’s played many times).
Of course, there’re the tunes: Annie’s heart-breaking “Maybe” and optimistic “Tomorrow”; Leavel’s show-stopping “Little Girls”; Grodin, Sava, and Leavel’s “Easy Street”; Sieber’s poignant “Something Was Missing”; and those scraping orphans, who keep things roarin’ with “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.”
Jeffery Saver is music director and conducts excellent, new arrangements crafted for this production by Keith Levenson (music director, conductor, original Annie) and rousingly played by the 15-strong orchestra.
The superb design of reversible sets and stunning painted scrims of New York City by Tony-winning and Obie-honored craftsman Beowulf Boritt (Paper Mill: The Honeymooners, A Bronx Tale. Broadway: Prince of Broadway, Come from Away, Act One (Tony), and, among many others, the just-opened Meteor Shower) have been smartly resurrected from Paper Mill’s 2002 production; along with the costumes by Suzy Benzinger. The knee-jerk, acrobatic choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter (School of Rock; regional, The Nutty Professor), is far from a highlight – rarely rising to the occasion except for the orphan’s show-stopper “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” and some stylish movement when Mackey and Warbuck’s staff pay tribute to their favorite orphan in the show’s title song.
In the program notes, director Hobbee writes: “It’s significant that the show, like its lead character, has at its core an indefatigable spirit so full of hope. The anthemic tune Annie sings near the beginning of the story declares that even through the dark times of the Great Depression, when half the country was broke, or out of work, and it seemed as though politicians were unconcerned with the plight of the common man, there was still hope … [the late] Thomas Meehan threaded through this musical the powerful message that family can be found in the most unlikely of places … We can’t think of a better way to celebrate that love of family, the promise that hope brings, and the joy of the season than by sharing this wonderful musical.”
Photographs by Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made
Annie runs through December 31
Paper Mill Playhouse
22 Brookside Drive
Millburn, New Jersey
Wednesdays – Sunday at 7 P.M.; Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday matinees at 1:30 P.M; December 16, following the matinee – cast Q&A; December 16 and 17, 1:30 P.M. – audio-described performances; December 17, noon, free sensory seminars for patrons with vision loss with in-depth description of the musical’s production elements and hands-on interaction with sets, props, and costumes; at 7 P.M. – sign-interpreted and open-captioned performance.; and December 27, 1:30 P.M. – Autism-friendly performance for children and those with developmental disabilities and their families.
Funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, the C.R. Bard Foundation, Karma Foundation, MetLife Foundation, Nordstrom, PSEG Foundation, and Summit Area Public Foundation. For more information: www.PaperMill.org/autism.
Mark S. Hoebee is Paper Mill’s producing artistic director and Todd Schmidt is managing director. The venue received the 2016 Tony Award for Regional Theatre Excellence.
Paper Mill’s 2017/2018 season is sponsored by Investors Bank and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation.
Tickets are $34 – $137, available at the Paper Mill box office, online at www.PaperMill.org, where you’ll find more information, or by calling 973-376-4343. Groups of 10 or more receive up to a 40% discount (973-315-1680). Students may order $23 rush tickets in person or by calling the box office day of performance.