Paper Mill: The State Theater of NJ

Millburn, NJ - October 2002

Review by John Kenrick

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The stars of Paper Mill's Annie - Rich Hebert, 
        Sarah Hyland and Buster"Tomorrow" is at hand in Paper Mill's new production of Annie, with Rich Hebert as Daddy Warbucks, Sarah Hyland as Annie, and Buster as Sandy.

We're all entitled to our guilty pleasures. Ever since I first saw Annie at a matinee preview back in 1977 (Leapin' lizards, can it really be 25 years ago?), I have been hopelessly in love with this show. Yes, sophisticates scorn it – well, tough! Corny or not, Annie is one kickin' musical comedy, the last of the well-built golden age Broadway hits. What do I mean by well-built? Simple – if you hand it to a talented cast and get out of the way, it runs like clockwork. From Broadway to London to summer barns and parish halls, I have seen this show bowl over audiences with amazing consistency. On opening night for its latest revival at New Jersey's Paper Mill State Theater, a theater-savvy audience sent its dignity sailing out the door on a tidal wave of cheers. And this despite some serious directorial mistakes that nearly derailed the whole thing. That is what a well-built musical can do.

Over the last two and a half decades, Annie and its story of an orphan girl and hard-nosed billionaire who find love in Depression-era New York has been pegged as a "kiddie" show. But it is far more than that. When the once-affluent residents of a shanty town express their bewilderment at the dire straits the stock market crash has left them in, the chill is all too real for those who have seen jobs and retirement funds disappear in the last two years of market decline. For all its wholesome trappings, Annie has a daring soul – one that does not shrink from the yawning gap between glittering privilege and bleak poverty. At a time when most people are crippled with varying degrees of fear, Annie's lonely characters dare to reach across that dangerous gap, in search of either love or ill-gotten fortune. The fortune hunters are consumed by their own greed – those who openly seek love find it, despite all the odds.

Paper Mill's new production gives Annie a first-class production. Michael Annania's sets (parts of which are deftly recycled from previous shows) capture the drab despair of the orphanage and the eye-popping grandeur of the Warbuck's mansion with equal ease. Costume co-ordinator Jimm Halliday does a fine job with outfits that mostly follow the original (and uncredited) designs by Theoni V. Aldredge. Choreographer Linda Goodrich captures the right tone with her dance routines, although some of the ensembles seem a bit too contrived.

I have to wonder what director Greg Ganakas was trying to accomplish here. In many cases, he wisely trusts the still-amazing libretto by Thomas Meehan, letting the shamelessly sentimental material have its way. But at other times he loses the thread. A case in point is his handling of Annie's nemesis, Miss Hannigan. Meehan purposely gave this essentially evil character such a comic soul that audiences couldn't help but feel sorry for her – even when her hatred of Annie turns openly murderous. As originally staged, Hannigan won the sympathy of every person who ever had to deal with a gaggle of screaming kids. For some reason, Ganakas opts to depict Hannigan as a relentlessly hateful monster from the get go. As a result, the audience hates her from the get-go. We cannot laugh at "Little Girls" – we're only too happy to see her undergo the sufferings listed in the song. Catherine Cox is one of the most luminous performers in musical theater today. When the director gets out of the way and lets her cut loose, she offers moments of brilliant hilarity. But the overall concept usually leaves Cox with little to do but serve plot purposes - she and the character both deserve better.

Easy Street Jim Walton (Rooster), Tia Speros (Lily) and Catherine Cox (Miss Hannigan) head for "Easy Street."

Sarah Hyland is a refreshingly unaffected Annie. Instead of the all too common "little actress," she simply acts like a little girl – if only the Annie in the last Broadway revival had taken the same approach! Rich Herbert is a delightfully gruff Warbucks, with a silvery tenor that lets "Something Was Missing" soar as it should. I dare anyone to resist Jim Walton's deliciously oily Rooster Hannigan, or the mischievous glee he brings to "East Street." Crista Moore is both hilarious and utterly soignee as Grace Farrell, and this production makes it clear that Warbucks and his secretary are in love by the final curtain.

Eric Michael Gillette sparkles as FDR, invoking the man without blatantly imitating him, and consequently winning laughs at every turn. The solid ensemble has several standout performers, particularly Broadway veterans Anna McNeeley, Tripp Hanson and Kenneth Kantor – each playing several roles. The orphans manage to be as shamelessly cute as the script demands, and their spirited antics make "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" as much a showstopper as ever. In fact, every one of Charles Strouse's tunes and Martin Charnin's lyrics gets full justice – it is a joy to encounter this charming score all over again.

Sarah Hyland sings TomorrowAnnie (Sarah Hyland) reassures Sandy (Buster) that tomorrow is "only a day away."

Oh, and then there's the dog. The original Sandy was a big part of what made me such a sucker for this show. His original trainer, Bill Berloni, has done the honors again here with Buster, a scruffy and utterly adorable dead-ringer for that pooch who turned me to mush twenty-five years ago. When he made his first entrance and rolled over, legs in the air to get a tummy rub from Annie, I was a goner – tears all over the place. Luckily, the unknown woman sitting in the next seat was even goopier than me – as were any number of other adults throughout the audience. Buster's Sandy was every bit as show-stealing as one could hope for – thanks, Mr. Berloni, from the bottom of my tear dampened heart!

Those of us who love Annie were seriously disappointed by the heavy-handed revival Broadway offered five years ago. Paper Mill's new production is certainly miles above that revival, with tons of heart and soul. Yes, there are causes for complaint, but Annie's magic still blasts through. I strongly suspect that there's nothing wrong with this production that a few performances without their director on hand won't fix. The delighted army of kids who's parents brought them along for the performance I attended made it clear that nothing matches the effect of a first-class, professional Annie. If you are looking for a real holiday treat, no need to sit through another numbing Radio City spectacular – catch Paper Mill's Annie. And if you're a kid or dog lover, be forewarned – bring extra Kleenex.

This production closed after a sold out run in December 2002.

Link to: Paper Mill's Website

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