When you think of Annie, you think of a precocious little girl with a frizzy red wig singing schmaltzy songs about being orphaned and hoping for a better tomorrow. And to some extent, that’s right, especially if you’re thinking of John Huston’s 1982 film. But Annie – The Musical shows there’s more to it than its rather unkind reputation would have you believe.
Because it’s really a story about America in the Great Depression, about how unemployment in the States reached a frightening high of 25% in 1933, the year Annie is set. Families lost their jobs and their livelihoods, many lost their homes and were forced to congregate like gypsy travellers in public parks, cobbled-together shanty towns known as Hooverville. America in 1933 was on the skids – 5,000 banks failed, drought ravaged the country’s agricultural heartland, and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon to pull it out of the economic mire. But then President Franklin D Roosevelt was elected to the White House, and his public work programmes helped turn things around.
It is against all this that the personal story of 11-year-old orphan Annie is set. The context makes the story much stronger. The musical opens with one of its least rousing and frankly deflating numbers – the turgid, sentimental Maybe – but soon cranks up the action with the rip-roaring Hard Knock Life, a song made even more familiar to audiences through its sampling by rapper Jay-Z in 1998. This is one of the musical’s highlights, giving the young girl actors a chance to show what their talent is made of, singing and dancing in unison and setting out their stall. It’s a pity it’s as brief as it is, with no reprise.
Sophia Pettit as Annie
The set design is based upon a jigsaw puzzle and street map, reflecting Annie’s search for her real parents which frames the story, and different locations are indicated simply by wheeling on a table and chairs, or someone cycling on with a hot dog stall or mobile dog pound. This is a clever way of maintaining the musical’s theme while still having the flexibility to go from orphanage to New York city street to the Oval Office.
Annie’s recurring signature theme is Tomorrow, an optimistic ditty which some might say grates a little after a while but is so integral to the production that you forgive it outstaying its welcome. It provides an uplifting climax to the show, which for a story set in such depressing, unhappy times, makes for a welcome way to leave the theatre.
Other numbers which bob in and out of familiarity include the jazzy, stomping Easy Street, and the rip-roaring dance number NYC, which climaxes in a fantastic tap-dancing number straight out of a 1930s MGM musical. Tap-dancing is seen as so old-fashioned these days (it used to have carte blanche on the entertainment bills of 1970s TV variety shows) so it’s great to see the magic of the art reproduced so energetically live on stage.
While the musical numbers are a mix of syrupy sentiment and stirring dance routines, the cast are all on fine form. Let’s get it out of the way first – the name selling this touring production of Annie is Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood as the duplicitous drunk Miss Hannigan, a role which calls for mastery of the Big Three – acting, dancing and singing. While Horwood aces it when it comes to singing and dancing, his thespian skills don’t quite meet the demand. His performance is not as unrestrained or camp as you’d expect – he seems a little self-conscious in the part – and his thick “Noo Yoyk” accent swings from spot on, to mildly incomprehensible. Some might say Horwood is an easy target – he must be pretty thick-skinned to dish it out as he does on Strictly – but that would be unfair. He is an underestimated musical talent – his singing voice during Little Girls is frankly staggering, and his choreography during Easy Street far outshines his co-stars – but he just hasn’t got the natural presence of an actor. At times you catch him saying his lines, rather than performing them.
And then there’s little Annie. There are three Annies, and I saw the delightful Sophia Pettit from Team Waldorf (there are three juvenile casts working on a rota due to child labour laws). What a talent! She has stage presence (but not precociously so), she can sing like the best of them, and she’s a professional on the stage (I noticed her very studiously making sure her dog didn’t get caught up in the busy dance routine of Hooverville). I’m sure the other two Annies are just as splendid, but for my money, Pettit has a shining future if she wants it.
The other young girls are energetic and just as giving. I fell in love with Jessica Cartledge as Molly, who steals your heart and runs away with it from the very first scene. She’s an angel with a dirty face who has one of the biggest laughs of the night when she hollers at Hannigan: “Your days are numbered!” These girls are all delightful and obviously keen and talented, and that’s uplifting for a cynical old hack like me to witness.
Other standouts include Matthew Hawksley as valet Drake, who has his very own comedy outburst, and Lewis Bradley as smarmy, shiny radio host Bert Healy. Stage veteran Alex Bourne belts out the heart-tugging You Won’t Be an Orphan for Long and Something Was Missing like the true pro that he is, and the devilish duo of Rooster and Lily are brought to life amusingly by Jonny Fines and Djalenga Scott. Perhaps you don’t dislike Rooster and Lily quite as much as you’re meant to, but maybe that’s because the actors make them so much fun to watch. Portraying villainy is a fine line to tread between charisma and repulsion.
Oh yes, and then there’s the dog! Labradoodle Amber “plays” Annie’s stray Sandy, and she’s obviously well-trained and unfazed by the bangs and whistles of a musical. But as a “character”, Sandy is pretty pointless, and after his introductory scene, is reduced to running frantically from one side of the stage to the other during scene changes. It makes you smile and go “aaahhh”, but if you’re expecting sustained “little girl with cute dog” scenes a la The Wizard of Oz, forget it.
Annie is not what you expect: it’s gritty, historically socially relevant, and while the story is pretty thin and you can see the ending coming like a juggernaut on a race track, it involves the audience on an emotional level. Yes, it’s saccharine at times (A New Deal for Christmas, when heard in July, did nothing for my stomach), and yes, there are perhaps too many slow numbers, but seeing the burgeoning talent of so many youngsters putting on a show just for you is heartwarming, and shows that the future of musical theatre is on easy street.
Annie can be seen at Venue Cymru, Llandudno until July 25th, and visits Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, between August 24th-29th, 2015.