Publicity for Annie doesn’t make much reference to its origins as a 1920s U.S. newspaper comic strip, and it’s easy to see why. The tousle-haired tough who solved crimes and defeated criminals and enemy agents at the hands of creator Harold Gray bears only superficial relationship to the musical’s central character. They’re both orphans and have red hair, a dog called Sandy and a rich friend called Daddy Warbucks, but that’s about it. The orphanage framework of the musical show is new, as indeed is the whole story line.
Not that it matters. While the link with a heroine of traditional popular culture helped sell the idea of the musical, most Australians today have heard of the comic strip only through the musical. In an entertaining essay in the Annie program notes, director and originator of the show Martin Charnin talks frankly of the origins of the musical and the various trials and travails it went through in development. The musical, like its character, had a rags to riches story.
It’s not the greatest musical ever written. Many of the musical numbers are fairly ordinary, as is the script. (Comic strip Annie would not have been impressed at the fairly easy time musical Annie has of things.) But as a show it comes together very well, and this is a top quality production. It’s a great outing for families.
Gold Coast 10-year-old Angela Symons as Annie gives a spirited and professional performance. Bouncing back from the setback that resulted in Melbourne Annie Nicole Gusasekharam taking over in Act 2 at Thursday’s official opening, Angela gave a first-class performance on Sunday, acting and dancing with great vigour and holding her pitch very well in the songs.
Anthony Warlow as Daddy Warbucks is top class. It’s a pity that most of his songs don’t give him the chance to demonstrate the full range of his singing talents, but when he does let go, it’s great to hear him.
Amanda Muggleton as orphanage boss Miss Hannigan is a likeable villain. Her tough treatment of the girls seems less unpleasant when we realise how much fun her orphans are having at her expense, and her tipsiness and hangover blues are captured with great comic effect. Angela Kelly is a most charming Grace (Warbuck’s secretary and admirer), Philip Gould and Jane Scali play a devilish pair of crooks, while TV newsreader Brian Bury is a convincing caricature of President Roosevelt. The support cast, including the bevy of leggy ladies, are splendid in various roles (if more convincing as palatial mansion staff and New York milling crowds than as skidrow inhabitants).
The show flouts W.C. Fields’ dictum on children and animals and gets away with it. The orphans are a treat: they sing and dance well and are very appealing. They don’t always keep their New York accents, but neither do some of the adults. Meanwhile the docile labradoodle playing Sandy seems quite unfazed by the singing and dancing all around him as well as the applause, dutifully making his entrances and exits on cue.
Special mention must be made of youngest cast member Nikita Johnston, also a Gold Coast girl, and aged only 7, who delights the audience with her depiction of the little kid orphan who is variously getting into mischief and being picked up like a package. (There’s a double cast of orphans, to give the children some much-needed time off.)
Musical numbers which work very well are Annie’s “Maybe” and “Tomorrow”, as well as the girls’ “You’re never fully dressed without a smile” and Warlow’s “Something was missing”. Paul White’s orchestra gives a rich layer of support, and the overall sound is excellent, thankfully succeeding in not inflicting pain on the eardrums as do many musicals with miked singers. The dance numbers are generally very good, and the choreography is well executed by children and adults. Jack Webster makes a popular butler with his entertaining dance steps and commanding presence.
The design of the production is spectacular. Front & back projection in combination with beautifully crafted sets succeed in capturing various faces of New York, and the stark and functionally ugly orphanage is perfectly contrasted with the palatial Warbucks home, right down to his “originals” of the Mona Lisa, Birth of Venus and Whistler’s Mother. (Not that there is any danger of social commentary on the contrast between the two ends of society: the impoverished conveniently blame all their problems on the previous president, and for Warbucks, success is simply the result of hard work.)
There are some flat moments, such as the latter part of Act 1. But various comical scenes succeed in evoking the 1930s era, including references to the likes of Elliot Ness, J. Edgar Hoover and Harpo Marx. Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s New Deal turns out to have been inspired by Annie’s cheerful optimism. It’s a pity this production isn’t playing in Canberra in this election year.