Book: Thomas Meehan
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Martin Charner
Director: Nikolai Foster
Little Orphan Annie has been enchanting us since 1924 when she started life as a comic strip by Harold Gray.
Since the twenties, she has spawned books, films and indeed musicals, with the first Broadway production opening in 1977. Indeed, it is the 1982 movie version starring Aileen Quinn and Albert Finney that lives in our collective consciousness due to its iconic storytelling.
The 2023 revival tour very much leans into its classic history, feeling safe and familiar throughout.The story follows Annie, an eleven-year-old orphan who had been left on the steps of the orphanage with only one clue to her identity, a broken locket. Annie dreams of running away from the orphanage and the drunken Miss Hannigan to find her parents and the happiness she has always longed for.Whilst the fairytale that Annie envisages never quite comes to pass, she does find a different kind of happiness after being invited to stay with Oliver Warbucks for the festive period.
Annie, played by Harlie Barthram makes an immediate impression with the young cast. She is a true triple-threat performer and brings a level of steely sass to the role. She effortlessly belts the iconic score and is able to make it feel very current.Her chemistry with both the young ensemble and older cast is excellent, but particularly with Alex Bourne as Daddy Warbucks. Together they are perfect, never more so than in Together At Last! This iconic song is not only beautifully sung, but the level of comfort in the dance between the two characters creates a moment of intense emotional depth. The only moment in the show to do so and it allows for Bourne to lend his humour to proceedings as the scene progresses.
This is in stark contrast to the slimy performance of Paul French (Rooster). An exceptionally physical performer who slithers to create the most impressive silhouettes in every scene. This performance is a masterclass in how to use movement and gesture in the most negative way possible. Before he has opened his mouth, the audience instantly dislikes him. When he finally does speak it is with a rough Brooklyn accent and it is to degrade his sister and girlfriend. But as much as the audience hates the character, French’s performance is so aggressively dynamic that he draws focus and steals every scene in which he appears. He brings to life Nick Winston’s choreography during Easy Street with such sleaze that he will leave your heckles up but your foot tapping and that is the wonderful dichotomy of his performance.
Besides the love-hate relationship with Rooster’s character, there is not much else about Annie that feels particularly dynamic but that isn’t reflected in the enjoyment of the show. Nikolai Foster has a pedigree of directing a slew of well-put-together shows and this one is no different. The transitions are tight, the delivery is pacey, and it is visually pleasing.
However, it must be said that it is extremely formulaic. Colin Richmond’s set of jigsaw pieces made to look like a scribbled-on map of New York, is cute but is extremely similar to the set of Matilda. Nick Winston’s choreography, alongside associate choreographer Megan Louch, is technically flawless and delivered with precision by the ensemble cast but is also devoid of heart. It is definitely entertaining, and the dancers look beautiful, but it does feel quite distant.
The juxtaposition with this show in general is that Thomas Meehan’s book is extremely sweet and sentimental and is coupled with the exceedingly high energy chirpiness of Charles Strouse’s score. Whilst individually both elements are exceptional, when paired it loses its emotional depth but gains the Broadway gloss that we know and love.
Often, scenes such as We’d Like To Thank You Herbert Hoover will depict a brutal and bleak outlook yet are paired with a full cheesy tap dance sequence. The result is a two-dimensional but pleasant experience. Due to the thick gloss that has been slapped over some of the serious plot points, this show is an excellent first introduction to musical theatre for small children. They will be taken in by the gorgeous costumes, golden lighting and will surely be swept along in the excitement that flows through the show. Annie is a Stalwart of musical theatre and a highly entertaining night out.
Runs until: 12 August 2023 and on tour