Humor, fun abound in heartfelt ‘Orphan Danny’

Julie Foldesi (Band Member/Women) and Dan Finnerty (Book, Lyrics, Music/Danny) in “Little Orphan Danny. Photo by Meghan Moore

LOWELL – The path to success for a one-person musical is pretty straightforward.

Make him/her eminently engaging and likable, and with a strong relationship with the material. Preferably he/she has developed part or all of it.

They must be a strong actor/singer, or at least someone who is able to put over a song. Make sure the director has a strong relationship with the performer, to rein in his/her worst instincts

Performer Dan Finnerty and Director Sean Daniels check all of the above boxes, and that is good news for the musical “Little Orphan Danny” at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre through April 15.

Finnerty is an accomplished performer, engaging in an Everyman kind of way.

He is also the frontman of the Dan Band, a music-as-comedy act that has following in such movies as “The Hangover.”

This musical is a warm and loving tribute to the couple who raised him – especially his mother – and along the way he strives to be fair to both his birth and adoptive mothers, in the end almost to a fault.

Daniels, Merrimack Rep’s artistic director, has carved out a niche at his theater with small story-telling musicals such as “The Lion,” and “My 80-year-old Boyfriend,” and this show is the type of production that might be lost in larger theaters but works perfectly within the confines of the intimate Nancy L. Donahue Theatre.

Daniels helped Finnerty develop some of the stories into a full-fledged musical, no doubt honing his storytelling and helping him decide what’s in and what’s out.

The productions centers around Finnerty’s personal experiences, his desire to reach out to his birth parents, the effect that had on his relationship with his adoptive mother, and eventually a growing relationship with his birth mother and her family.

Little Orphan Danny”is not actually a one-person musical. Actress Julie Foldesi is not only part of the band but portrays the important women in his life: Pat, Dan’s mom; his wife, Kathy; and his birth mother, Peg, and other roles, often changing character with a subtle change in hairstyle, accessories or a tweak of the voice..

As Pat, she often finds herself referring to book that an adoptive mother uses to answer the questions – often awkward – that her child asks.

Finnerty grew up outside Rochester, N.Y. in a conservative Catholic family, an altar boy, the child of a judge and a math teacher, a slightly off-center kid who struggles to find acceptance and popularity.

Finnerty mines his childhood for all the extant humor, as well as his sexual awakening – courtesy of his aunt’s unattended HBO – and finds hilarious sexual refuge in a groundbreaking book about women’s bodies.

Eventually, he becomes ever more curious about the circumstances of his birth, but the adoption agency only provides slim details.

His search and eventual connection with his birth mother will bring rewards and risks as he struggles to balance his new relationship with the old.

Little Orphan Danny” owes much to the projection designs by Seaghan Mackay which vividly illustrate scenes from Finnerty’s life and work in concert with the pop/rock score to advance the narrative.

Music Director Dan Lipton performs the score along with Foldesi, Jeffrey Prescott and Andres Wilson. Finnerty is also a skilled musical parodist, changing“Maybe” from “Annie” into “Perhaps.”

There’s no closure or real ending point to “Little Orphan Danny,” He’s still struggling to get it right in his relationships with his two families. There are two or three moments in the show that would seem to be the perfect codas to the production, but he can’t resist the urge the urge to tell just one more story. That includes one about his late birth father’s mother – his grandmother by birth — which may have told him he had gone too far in trodding on the feelings of his adoptive mother. It could have been excised with no great effect on the production.

Little Orphan Danny” is still a work in progress and there is some additional theatrical polishing and sanding to be done, but the house Finnerty and Daniels have constructed to date is a solid one: funny, heartfelt and moving.

And while it is a very, very personal piece, it speaks with eloquence to other adopted children, and in its unvarnished look at family matters there is much that anyone can identify with.

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.