Paper Mill Playhouse is giving the gift of optimism for Christmas with Annie, the 40-year-old Tony-winning musical that can either charm or sicken with its unflagging sweetness. The direction that pendulum swings depends entirely on the cast, and in this case, Paper Mill has stocked its company with all the heavy hitters necessary to cut the musical's cloying "golly-gee" flavor to a satiating and thoroughly enjoyable level.
Annie, herself — played by the vocally impressive Cassidy Pry at the opening-night performance (she alternates the role with Peyton Ella) — remains cheerful as ever. We find her in Depression-era New York City, living with a stable of young girls in an orphanage overseen by the abusive drunk Miss Hannigan (a role made for the flawless comedian Beth Leavel). And yet, with nothing but an 11-year-old note and half a locket, she has all the faith in the world that her parents are coming back to claim her. That can-do spirit is what eventually gets her chosen to spend the holidays with the billionaire bachelor Oliver Warbucks (Christopher Sieber), who falls in fatherly love with the wide-eyed girl and her idealistic worldview.
While Pry, with a bright charisma and an indefatigable smile, rarely swerves from her perky lane, the adults tasked with swirling around her balance her sugar with some spice (credit to director Mark S. Hoebee for mining Thomas Meehan's book for all of its comic beats). Leavel's rendition of "Little Girls" is gin-soaked perfection — a grittier sequel to her showstopping performance of "As We Stumble Along" from The Drowsy Chaperone, which earned her a Tony Award in 2006. Joined with Cooper Grodin as Hannigan's shyster brother Rooster and Kim Sava as ditsy blond Lily St. Regis, the three make an ideal axis of evil as they shimmy to the many reprises of "Easy Street."
On the other side of that coin we have Sieber, who zooms through the standoffish stage of Warbucks's relationship with Annie. With a skip in his step and twinkle in his tired eye, he is instantly smitten with his orphan guest, and we're instantly smitten with him because of it (Sieber's performance of the paternal ballad "Something Was Missing" is the only love song you'll need all holiday season). Erin Mackey, meanwhile, stays on the sidelines as Warbucks's assistant Grace, making you wish the part was bigger every time she sings a line with her gorgeous soprano.
In between plot points we get everything we want from a production of Annie: An ensemble of adorable children hamming up the stage to "It's the Hard Knock Life" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" (creative choreography for the young ensemble by Joann M. Hunter), a high-energy excursion into Manhattan for the number "NYC" (with an eye-catching New York City skyline designed by Beowulf Boritt), and a well-trained dog ready to respond to the name Sandy just in time to save him from the pound. If you can't handle the bright pinging frequency of young girls belting in unison, this is not the show for you. But if you and your family feel like taking a short break from pessimism, Annie is ready to dole out the sunshine.
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