We got Annie! [by James Wenley]
Did the Global Financial Crisis lead to an increase in Annie revivals? Set in 1933, four years after the stock market crash, the tale of the 11-year-old red-headed orphan has as its backdrop the haves and have-nots of the Great Depression era. Six years after the 2008 crisis, the Broadway Musical is now playing at Auckland’s Civic Theatre. This comes by way of a production “direct from the UK”, but actually toured the UK in 2011 and visited Hong Kong and Singapore in 2012. In Australia Anthony Warlow headlined as Daddy Warbucks in 2012, a role which finally got him to Broadway, in a New York production that was the toast of the 2012-2013 season. You may have heard too of the new Annie movie musical produced by Jay Z and Will Smith, with Jamie Foxx as “Will Stacks”, whose somewhat promising trailer is ruined every time Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan shows up.
It is easy to dismiss Annie, a ‘comic book’ Musical which debuted on Broadway in 1977: too saccharine, too sentimental, too cute. Annie, the audacious orphan with optimistic cheek, escapes her orphanage fate by charming gruff billionaire Oliver Warbucks, meets President Roosevelt, and inspires his signature domestic New Deal policy by bursting into song: “Betcha bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun”.
But look again and you’ll find a witty take on the American dream and the Depression era: a chorus of homeless in a Hooverville thank despised former president Hoover – “you made us what we are today”, Warbucks asks Elliot Ness to be taken off the Capone case to help search for Annie’s real parents. While Annie really is loved by its young girl target audience, there’s much for the rest of us to enjoy too. Annie’s idealism is balanced by the dark streak of the show’s villains: orphanage head Miss Hannigan sings of wanting to “wring little necks”, and her brother, the gangster Rooster, presents a threat to Annie’s life.
After big budget productions of Wicked, Jersey Boys and Mary Poppins, this production seems quite old-fashioned in its staging by comparison, relying on the hand-painted drops for much of its set changes (the Warbucks mansions looks more bargain-basement than opulent). Street scenes, taking place downstage, are cramped and awkwardly staged. The dance choreography, however, is much more polished then the scene blocking; in ‘I think I’m gonna like it here’ it manages the servants’ ins and outs in a high energy number.
Annie and the orphans, played by Auckland locals, are firm scene-stealers, putting the “life” into Hard-Knock Life, upstaged in crowd response perhaps only by the brief appearances of Sandy the Dog. Opening Night’s Annie (Zoe Fifield, who shares the role with Ilena Shadbolt and Amelia Walshe) is a perfect Annie, the right mix of pluck and sunshine (and can belt like there’s no tomorrow). David McAlister’s Warbucks cracks rather quickly from his businessman self-absorption, playing the character as a big softy for the rest of the evening (his ode to NYC is delivered with gravitas). Su Pollard plays Miss Hannigan like she’s in a rush to get away from the little girls and put her feet up, missing potential comic beats in the process; Carol Burnett in the 1982 movie is a Hannigan you love-to-hate, here Pollard’s more of a pantomime villain, and the musical suffers for it. Mig Ayesa as Rooster and Emily Trebicki as Lily St Regis are suitably sleazy. Rachel Stanley as private secretary Grace Farrell is equal parts kind and sophisticated and relishes her dance moments. A number of hardworking ensemble actors make an impression in a variety of roles including Joe Connors as radio announcer Bert Healy and a police officer, John D Collin’s dry butler Drake, Sue Hodge as Mrs Greer, and 87-year-old Audrey Leybourne as Mrs Pugh, whose presence always made the stage shine brighter with her irrepressible grin.
The orchestra sounds good, the brass ringing strong and the cast in fine voice.
The 3rd Act ties everything all neatly together in a bow (the 1983 film improves the narrative by upping the stakes with Annie’s capture) and rather lays on the Christmas cheer, but as the song goes, you’re never fully dressed without a smile, and you’ll certainly find yourself in complete attire during this show.
Annie is presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and plays at The Civic until July 6 . Details see Auckland Live.