Little Orphan Danny is an engaging and satisfying musical, a fun journey through the life of an affable troublemaker.
Little Orphan Danny, Book, Lyrics & Music by Dan Finnerty. Created by Dan Finnerty & Sean Daniels. Directed by Daniels Additional music by Dan Lipton. At the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through April 15.
By Erik Nikander
Little Orphan Danny is a candid, hilarious exploration of family. Conceived, written, and performed by Dan Finnerty of The Dan Band, it’s a warm and loving tribute to Finnerty’s adoptive mom, as well as a genuine study of the lingering questions adopted kids struggle with throughout their lives. It also features a scene in which Finnerty vividly describes his awkward sexual awakening, which occurred while he watched Paul Schrader’s Cat People on HBO. The play also delves into the sweet and the raunchy with equal verve; these two moods might seem hard to reconcile with each other, but Little Orphan Danny pulls off the balancing act incredibly well. It may not be the most dramatically edgy or groundbreaking show out there, but it’s still fun, engaging theater.
Danny is, in many ways, an average American kid. Raised by two professional-class, conservative Catholic parents, his struggles for popularity and acceptance among his friends resemble the trials and tribulations any oddball kid might face. However, one aspect of Dan’s life sets him apart slightly from other misfits: his family adopted him. While the fact of his adoption doesn’t make Dan’s family life any less happy, he can’t help but be curious about his birth parents. Who are they? Why did they decide to give him up? As Dan digs into his biological history, he makes a discovery that might throw one of his most important relationships off-balance.
As alluded to above, Finnerty is best known for The Dan Band, a comedic musical act that often appears in comedies like Old School and The Hangover as a raunchy wedding band. Given his career, it makes sense that Little Orphan Danny feels at times very much like a concert; the show’s musical score is performed live on-stage. Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting work also accentuates this vibe, splashing the stage with neon colors and dancing spotlights throughout the high-energy musical numbers. Much of this energy comes from Finnerty himself, whose boisterous presence is so engaging that it makes an ensemble cast feel superfluous.
Though Finnerty’s non-musical performance felt a tad stiff at the show’s opening, he quickly got into the swing of things, telling stories of boyhood embarrassment and adult awkwardness with frank honesty. The combination of his gregarious comedic presence and Sean Daniels’s sharp direction makes the show’s 90-minute runtime breeze by. While the humorous content of the play is a little coarser than Merrimack Rep’s usual fare, it’s unlikely to offend anyone but the most puritanical. Finnerty himself is more of an amiable class clown than a provocateur, and the show’s goofiness feels so genuine that it actually heightens the sincere moments instead of working against them.
Another praiseworthy element of the show is the performance of Julie Foldesi, who takes on various roles throughout the play, the most significant of which are Pat, Dan’s mom; his wife, Kathy; and his birth mother, Peg. The show is driven by Finnerty’s performance, but Foldesi does an excellent job of fleshing out and expanding the domestic world he creates. Both through her interactions with Dan and her solo musical performances, she successfully prevents the play from feeling solipsistic, taking us out of Dan’s viewpoint and providing different perspectives on the story as it unfolds
On a technical level, the show generally succeeds. There may not be an excessive number of costumes, but designer Jen Caprio still provides some memorable pieces, such as a recreation of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” jacket; she also clues the audience in as to what character Foldesi is playing through subtle accessory changes. Daniel Erdberg’s sound mix and Brian J. Lilienthal’s lighting unite to give the play a rock-show vibe that’s exciting but not overwhelming.
The only odd technical note is Michael B. Raiford’s scenic work, which is competent but makes a somewhat generic impression. The set exudes the atmosphere of a standard, modern family home, everything painted a bland white. This choice makes sense given the domestic themes of the play, but it doesn’t dramatize Dan’s internal conflict in a meaningful way. The set more or less provides the staging area and a screen on which to showcase Seaghan McKay’s projections, which are compelling at times, but also felt rather extraneous on occasion. Given that the scenic work at MRT this season has been generally top-notch, this weakness is a little disappointing.
The story of Dan Finnerty’s family is still ongoing (thankfully), so the resolution of Little Orphan Danny is a bit more open-ended than it would be in your average drama. Nonetheless, the play is an engaging and satisfying musical, a fun journey through the life of an affable troublemaker. Its different elements cohere remarkably well; the comedy never feels extraneous and the more sentimental moments are never overwrought or treacly. Whether you’re a die-hard fan of The Dan Band or a Finnerty neophyte, the good-natured irreverence of Little Orphan Danny will almost certainly win you over.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.