“Annie” seems to have been around forever, but in fact premiered on Broadway in 1977 making it a more modern musical than most imagine. Based upon the Harold Gray comic strip “Little Orphan Annie”, with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan, its libretto is well supported by a strong score of which “Tomorrow” , “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Easy Street” have become standards.
Any production pivots on the success of the roles of Miss Hannigan and Annie. Taking up the challenge are Lesley Joseph, whom I have seen tackle this role some years ago, and is a safe pair of hands, and Elise Blake, who is suitably cute and endearing.
The plot is saccharine sweet American schmaltz. A loveable little red-haired orphan escapes the clutches of comic book evil orphanage keeper Miss Hannigan to win the affections of hard- nosed wealthy businessman Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks. His granite exterior soon cracks for the little girl- yet her desire to discover her roots cannot be thwarted. The dialogue zips along with a number of good jokes, often at the Democrats expense, Donald Trump would approve. We are also never far away from a song or a dance to recharge our batteries in a show whose energy levels are impressively high.
Events unfold in 1930’s New York against a backdrop of the Great Depression, stage designer Colin Richmond has produced a versatile, colourful set which impresses, without being over elaborate. The set changes with stage furniture are slick, morphing from orphanage, to back streets ,to billionaires mansion, in a blink of an eye.
Lesley Joseph is the star turn, and in this characterisation, tunes down the malevolence, turns up the drunkenness, and allows Johnny Fines, playing her partner in crime brother Rooster, to take the crown as chief baddie. Rooster is ably assisted by Djalenga Scott as his girlfriend Lily, who is funny, scheming and ekes the maximum both out of her supporting role, and legs which seem to go on forever..
Elise Blake is all that you could want from an Annie. Her relationship with Daddy Warbucks is convincing, her performance confident, but vulnerable, and her naïve joie de vivre neatly counterpoints Miss Hannigan’s increasing frustration as Annie enjoys the good fortune which has eluded her, and yes, she and all the orphans hit those top F #’s in “Hard Knock Life”! “Tomorrow” is beautifully sung, a song of hope for the young, a lament for the old, and is to the show what “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is to “The Wizard of Oz”.
For some legs of this tour Craig Revel Harwood has taken the part of Miss Hannigan. Unsurprisingly the production delivers choreography of the highest standard driven by choreographer Nick Winston . Four teams perform the child parts, the Rockerfeller Team were present on this opening night, and Winston produces several memorable set pieces, the highlight of which is the Broadway pizzazz of “NYC” towards the end of the first half.
Not only is the choreography sharp, inventive, and performed with gusto and brio, the singing is also unusually strong too, both individually, and collectively. I should make special mention of understudy Callum McArdle’s Daddy Warbucks, whose vocal performance was mellifluous and an absolute delight. Opposite him, Holly Dale Spencer shines as his PA, and love interest, Grace Farrell, singing and dancing with aplomb, and carrying the best dress of the evening, an emerald evening gown, with some style.
This is wholesome, accessible, entertainment for the whole family and a revival far superior to the last tour I saw with Joseph in it. The dance has been ramped up significantly, and the score is beautifully arranged by Musical Director George Dyer who slips from Vaudeville to New Orleans Dixie effortlessly, besides the big Broadway production numbers which boom with New York style.
Justly evoking a standing ovation for the curtain call, catch this show on its run till Saturday 9th April, it will make you feel good.
This review first appeared in Behind the Arras, abridged, where a comprehensive collection of reviews from the best of Midlands Theatre, from a range of reviewers, is available.