It takes maybe five or 10 seconds for the title character of “Annie” to utterly charm the previously uncharmable Oliver Warbucks, and she’ll work her magic on you, too.
There is no escaping it. Resistance is futile.
The excellent production that is currently at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn had me, in fact, from the first notes of the first song, “Maybe.” “Tomorrow” is the most famous of Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin’s songs from the 1976 musical, of course, followed by “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” But it’s “Maybe”— which is reprised twice over the course of the evening— that really represents the heart and soul of the show.
“Maybe far away/Or maybe real nearby/He may be pourin’ her coffee/She may be straight’ning his tie,” the orphaned Annie sings, yearning for her long-vanished parents. My eyes tear up just typing these lines.
Of course, the show gets around to “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” soon enough, not to mention the scenes in which Annie (played by Cassidy Pry on the night I attended; Peyton Ella is alternating in the role) finds familial love with Warbucks (Christopher Sieber) and his warm but tough assistant, Grace (Erin Mackey).
In this musical, set in New York in December 1933, Annie also jolts the country out of The Depression — with the help of a jovial President Roosevelt (Kevin Pariseau). But really, it’s the family stuff that’s the main attraction.
Beth Leavel, hamming it up deliriously, adds lots of comic relief as the unhinged, cartoonishly evil orphanage-owner-from-hell, Miss Hannigan. And ensemble members AnnEliza Canning-Skinner, Kate Marilley and Bronwyn Tarboton do a good job at impersonating 1930 sensations The Boswell Sisters on “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” an enjoyable (but pointless) digression.
Annie’s canine friend, Sandy, is also worked into the action occasionally. The stray-dog-turned-pet is played by the well-trained Macy, who, the program tells us, has been Sandy in more than a dozen productions of “Annie,” nationally, since 2010. (Who knew that portraying Sandy could be a full-time job?)
Despite all its other considerable positives, this “Annie” is so winning mainly because of Pry’s strong voice and remarkable poise, and the abundance of talent on display by the actresses who play Annie’s orphanage friends: Pepper (Gabby Beredo), Molly (Tessa Noelle Frascogna), Duffy (Michelle Henderson), Tessie (Eve Johnson), July (Lauren Sun) and Kate (Sloane Wolfe).
Besides hitting every note and nailing every dance move perfectly, they projected real, bracing anger on “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” and the youngest of the group, Franscogna, who is 9, proved she has scene-stealing attitude to spare.
Among the show’s other elements, mention must be made of the Warbucks mansion, which, even on the Paper Mill’s large stage, created the illusion of a much bigger expanse. The original scenic design is by Beowulf Boritt, withscenic coordination by Jared Rutherford.
Cute kids, uplifting songs, a dog, some holiday season references … more than, perhaps, any other musical ever created, “Annie” seems genetically engineered to generate mass popularity.
You could quibble that Miss Hannigan’s accomplices in trying to lie their way to some of Warbucks’ money — her sleazy brother Rooster (Cooper Grodin) and his ditsy girlfriend Lily (Kim Sava)— aren’t really necessary, and doesn’t it undercut Miss Hannigan’s villainy to have them do the dirty work? A bit in the first act about young performer (Canning-Skinner) coming to New York to become “a star” comes out of nowhere, for no good reason.
Sandy disappears for a long stretch of the play, and gets back onstage in the most far-fetched way.
On another level, with all the nonsense going on in Washington, D.C., right now, what I really crave from art of any kind is nasty political satire, not a play in which a lovably goofy, sincerely well-meaning President learns the lesson of a lifetime from an adorable 11-year-old.
Still, it would take someone far more Scrooge-like than me to profess to more than the slightest reservations about this “Annie.” I highly recommend it.
“Annie” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Dec. 31; visit papermill.org.