The Sun Has Come Out: “Annie” Shines At The Paper Mill Playhouse

In this production, the orphans live a hard knock life in Jersey.

In 1977, the original Annie—based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie—exploded like a burst of sunshine onto New York City (and a country) that desperately needed it. The feisty but sunny girl, who finds true happiness with billionaire Daddy Warbucks, proved to be an irresistible mood changer, and has continued to be just that for many “Tomorrows.” Who can’t relate to the plight of someone in search of a rich and doting sugar daddy? Since the original production (with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin), I’ve gone everywhere from Brooklyn to western Pennsylvania to see new versions of it and catch that glow. And now, Annie’s landed—all optimistic and google eyed—in the lap of New Jersey, so I hopped over to Penn Station and got there for the opening.

The 2012 Broadway revival went for more naturalism, which resulted in some charms, but was a little like melding a cartoon with The Grapes of Wrath. Yes, Annie is set in the Depression, when even Daddy Warbucks’ wallet is suffering a tiny bit, but it’s pure fluff—cotton candy for the soul—and can’t withstand too much probing realism. Fortunately, the Paper Mill Playhouse production, directed by Mark S. Hoebee, is straightforward, gimmick-free, and delightful.

Act One has the brunt of the good numbers, with the plaintive “Maybe” followed by the endearingly cute “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” the classic “Tomorrow,” and orphanage head Miss Hannigan’s blisteringly funny “Little Girls” and her rowdy trio “Easy Street,” with her shady brother and his strumpety girlfriend. It also sets up the plot of the girl whose parents said they’d come and get her, but who, in the meantime, is fortuitously swept from Hannigan’s claws into Warbucks’ splendor, as he—and even FDR—vow to help her find her folks.

Act Two doesn’t have nearly as many strong numbers, so instead it has four reprises of Act One songs and one reprise of the best Act Two song (“You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” done in an adorably mocking way by the chorus of orphans). But it moves along smoothly and leads to a big Christmas tree and all the trimmings, as Annie realizes what we knew all along—that she belongs with her Daddy.

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Cassidy Pry as Annie.

Tony-winner Beth Leavel has a lot of infectious fun with the part of Hannigan, giving comic bite to the woman’s dire desperation as she screams, snarls, and manipulates. Making bold choices, Leavel is a riot in the role. Christopher Sieber (in a sort of Nathan Lane-y vein) is strong as the Republican big shot who melts for the girl that’s brightened his life, and even for the Democratic president he’d disapproved of, and Erin Mackey makes a lovely Grace, Warbucks’ assistant who has the key to all her boss’s needs. As Annie, Cassidy Pry—who alternates in the role with Peyton Ella—is a pro, with strong pipes—and though the girls are all top-notch, pint-sized Tessa Noelle Frascogna steals the spotlight as Molly, from her smiles to her somersaults.

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Beth Leavel (center) as Miss Hannigan with the orphans.

My only gripes were that the dog playing Sandy looks a bit like he’s from an Alyssa Milano commercial; the guy who plays Drake is allowed to overdo some comic bits; and the notes of “NYC” sound a little bit like “Edelweiss.” But that’s only because I’ve seen Annie so many times. Unlike Roosevelt, this production doesn’t offer a New Deal, it’s the Annie we know and like. Even the joke about New Jersey landed—in New Jersey!

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.