I will never deny that my love of musical theatre developed from an early age with the assistance of many filmed musicals and movie-musicals. One of these was certainly the 1999 musical movie Annie distributed by the Walt Disney Company. While many people I’ve met since have assured me of their devotion to the subsequent 1982 film production, it cannot be denied that it is Charles Strouse’s music and Martin Charnin’s lyrics which draw people back to either of the film productions made of Annie or the original musical. Premiering on Broadway in 1977, Annie is proving its status as an established classic by touring the UK again following the 2017 West End revival stint. I was lucky enough to be invited to the press night at the Wales Millennium Centre to see this well-beloved show live for the first time. This review will discuss this production in particular and its treatment and direction of the known characters and narrative.
For the show I attended the role of Annie was played by Mia Lakha and the children’s cast was played by The Chrysler Company (one of the three cast rotations for the young girls portraying the other orphans). They are all adorable and very talented for their ages especially with the choreography, but more on that further down. The true heart and warmth of the show was revealed to be the threesome between Lakha’s Annie, Alex Bourne’s Daddy Warbucks and Carolyn Maitland’s Grace Farrell. Both Bourne and Maitland bring an air of effortless grace to their scenes. They build the relationship between their characters subtly, particularly in an adorable moment at the end of ‘N.Y.C’, but the ultimate payoff is as satisfying as if this show was a straight romance. However, they shine individually in the tenderness and emotion shining through ‘Something Was Missing’, ‘I Don’t Need Anything but You’ and the reprise of ‘Maybe’ between Annie and Grace Farrell. Add in the tiny package of optimism, heart and surprising grounding of Lakha’s Annie and the central familial group easily becomes the key aspect of this show.
As I mentioned above, the 1999 film adaptation of Annie was one consistently featured especially at Christmas time. Due to this, as soon as they began to sing ‘N.Y.C’ and the set reflected the warmth in Bourne’s voice all of the nostalgia flooded back. Personally, this song was a highlight of this show as the combination of the best assets including this trio, the lighting creating the warm nostalgic mood and the set representing the bustling city.
Craig Revel Horwood did not disappoint as Miss Hannigan. You can see the length of time he has spent in the role and his establishment of his interpretation of the character. The advancements he makes in the character are easily his dancing skills, as would be expected. However, this show is very heavy on stunning choreography and Horwood’s skill in executing this within his character mean that her dance breaks in particular do not clash with the character interpretation. He also has quite the impressive powerful voice especially for ‘Little Girls’ which fitted perfectly alongside his portrayal of Miss Hannigan’s damaged anger and despair at her position. However, along with some of the children’s cast, he is a victim of a significant loss of diction and impactful lines whilst maintaining the accent necessary for Annie.
My primary issue came with the insubstantial direction taken with Miss Hannigan. I must admit I do like a good antagonist and there simply isn’t any antagonist in this production of Annie. However, there are hints of one in Miss Hannigan which I feel could have been developed or at least simply moved between two points in the narrative to add a level of stakes in Annie’s possible return to the orphanage and justify er downfall. I understand the primary audience for this show, but this production does include Miss Hannigan going to hit one of the orphans but stopping herself very quickly and the moment or urge is never mentioned again despite it fitting with her character construction in every way. It is entirely believable. However, her downfall is very quick and simple and I just feel that if this moment had been repeated or referenced in the her final scene then it would have added some weight to both the character and narrative. I believe this may have been a point more of directing than acting choice but I believe that a choice like this which can impact the character so heavily shouldn’t have been only half done.
I feel that this production is a very good treatment of Annie as an older musical being produced in 2019. However, I do feel that the story and the movement between each scene and action, particularly Annie’s actions, should have been considered in greater detail. In this particular version of Annie each scene and event feels very episodic to the point of it becoming jarring. This did not effect the individual songs or the content of each scene but, for example, the scene which Annie spends with the homeless feels entirely disconnected from even the scene directly following it. This is indicative of Annie‘s script and the way in which it was original written which cannot be changed or avoided in its current form. However, in terms of character development and even the technical scene changes this production could have done more to bring these scenes into a more cohesive show.
I did appreciate that this production is far more informed by the economic background or the story but does so through the eyes of the child, demonstrated to its fullest extend during ‘Cabinet Tomorrow’. The subtlety of the show being told from Annie’s perspective whilst appearing to be a straight representation of her life could explain the episodic nature as childhood memories are often separated in a similar way. This really is a personal preference and dependent on both your knowledge of the show and reason for seeing the show. This show is great as a gateway for children to begin seeing musicals which is exactly what it should be and if your are a fan of the show you will enjoy it. However, I don’t think it hits the same sweet spot as some other introductory but major musicals, such as Matilda or the Disney productions, where the enjoyment of the story and wider production are entirely equal between both child and adult accompanying them.
Nick Winston’s choreography and Ben Cracknell’s lighting design come together perfectly. Firstly the choreography generally is an absolute treat to watch and the ensemble, both child and adult, are insanely talented dancers. The lighting comes in for the most impactful moves and lyrics which certainly assists in balancing the relatively poor diction unfortunately caused by the necessity of the accents. Hearing a child behind me say ‘wow’ as the traditional straight dance break came up during ‘N.Y.C’ was very adorable and a perfect insight into what a simply staged but brilliantly executed dance break can accomplish.
Colin Richmond’s set and costume designs also show the level of detailed simplicity of this show. As much as I wish it was more of a reveal, the use of the New York map across the back of the stage as Warbucks muses on the big city lit softly was a very special but tiny moment in this show that shows exactly why is has been so loved and why it will continue to be loved by both audiences and theatrical professionals. I also loved the dedication to theatricality as, instead of using comically large set pieces or ensemble pushed cars for the taxis instead they were portrayed through lighting and two excellent dancers in yellow tops. It’s just little things like this which brought an instant smile to my face as you can see the effort and thought behind them.
With brilliant members of the cast making up for some of the directional decisions and their enforced lack of diction in an intricate set and lighting plot this show is a perfect introduction to musical theatre for the younger members of the audience, exactly as it should be. However, while this production does justice to its material some adults who remember the musical from their childhoods may be caught off guard by the episodic feeling of the narrative and insubstantiality of some characters. If you want an evening away from the world, a nostalgic trip and have the feeling of crisp Christmas in August this touring production of Annie could be exactly what you’re looking for.
Annie is currently running at the Wales Millennium Centre until the 31st of August and you can purchase your tickets here. It will then continue on tour across the UK until November 2019 and you can see the later dates here.
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