(DEC. 27 UPDATE: Remaining performances have been canceled “due to positive results during routine COVID testing of the company.”)
There are no sure things in the entertainment world. But this is about as close as you can get.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn is currently presenting a family-oriented revue featuring songs known by heart by generations of kids and adults, titled “A Jolly Holiday: Celebrating Disney’s Broadway Hits.” And it features five actors who, in some cases, have sung these very songs in hit Broadway productions.
It almost can’t miss. And it doesn’t. Only the Scroogiest Scrooge would fail to salute it as a fun and sometimes uplifting (through the strength of its power ballads) run through the deep, deep Disney songbook.
The critic in me must add, though, that the title is a little misleading. Four of the musicals that yielded these songs (“Hercules,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “High School Musical”) have not, in fact, ever been presented on Broadway. And of course, many people know the songs from other musicals represented (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Mary Poppins,” “Frozen” etc.) primarily from the films, and not the Broadway productions.
Book writer Sandy Rustin and director Casey Hushion take a very straightforward approach: The actors appear as themselves, chatting amiably with the audience — talking about growing up with certain Disney songs and acting in Disney musicals, sharing feel-good thoughts about the holiday season and so on — between their solo, duo and group performances of 33 songs.
The songs are grouped together by musical, and after each segment of the show, an ornament representing that musical is hung on the giant Christmas tree behind them. There are many other smaller, glittering Christmas trees in Kelly James Tighe’s set, plus ribbon-covered gift boxes and a fireplace with a menorah on the mantel. Keyboardist-conductor Geoffrey Ko remains onstage with the actors, in front of the trees, throughout the show; seven other musicians are partially visible behind the set.
The Disney musicals are represented by between one and five songs apiece. Only one musical, “Frozen,” gets five, including the show-closing “Let It Go” (naturally). And “Mary Poppins,” “Aladdin” and “Newsies” tie for second place, with four each.
I wonder if this has something to do with the cast. One of the actors, Major Attaway, has spent three and a half years playing the indefatigably boisterous Genie in “Aladdin” on Broadway. Another, Kara Lindsay, was the original female lead, Katherine, in “Newsies” on Broadway, after playing the role in the musical’s pre-Broadway run at the Paper Mill Playhouse. She also played the title role of “Mary Poppins” at the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh, and has her Julie Andrews-like delivery and the tongue-twisting complexities of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” down perfectly.
Jarran Muse shows off his tap-dancing skill during “Step in Time” (from “Mary Poppins”). And the production provides a twist on a Disney original by having “My Strongest Suit,” performed by the female character Amneris in “Aida,” sung by one of its male actors, Dan DeLuca. “You make a great leading lady,” Lindsay told him, afterwards.
“Santa Fe,” from “Newsies,” seemed like an odd choice to close the first act: There are so many other show-stoppers in Disney musicals that could have ended the act on a more emphatic note. And I could have done without the blandly cheerful “We’re All in This Together” (from “High School Musical”) to kick off Act Two.
A little Disney brand-boosting is built into the show. It is mentioned between songs that 23 Disney shows are now being presented in theaters around the world! (Or 24 if you count this one!). And audience members are also told that “Hercules,” featuring music by Disney favorite Alan Menken and produced in New York (though not on Broadway) in 2019, will be part of the Paper Mill Playhouse’s next season before, possibly, making it to Broadway at some point in the future.
“A Jolly Holiday: Celebrating Disney’s Broadway Hits” will be presented at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Jan. 2. Visit papermill.org.
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