Thomas Meehan and Martin Charnin, Charles Strouse
Michael Harrison Entertainment and David Ian Productions
Opera House, Manchester
2 February 2019 -16 February 2019
No one can dislike Annie, surely – the musical story of the feisty little New York orphanage girl who charms her way into the heart of a billionaire, set against the backdrop of the American Depression and Franklin D Roosevelt’s invention of the ‘New Deal’ to get the country’s economy motoring again.
The show has run and run and toured and toured, we’ve seen the film and watched amateur theatre versions, and now here it is again, first seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and now off on tour in a glitzy West End-based production and starting in Manchester.
Judging by the first night audience, with countless Annie lookalikes – and even a few replica Miss Hannigans – in the audience, and everyone joining in the final chorus of ‘Tomorrow’, we’re not far from a complete singalong version like with The Sound of Music.
Of course it’s a lovely show. Everything’s bold and loud in this version, and none the worse for that. I couldn’t quite see the point of the jigsaw theme in the stage-surrounding part of the set – unless it’s about looking to see where you fit in the great jigsaw of life, which is a bit deep – but in Colin Richmond’s designs there’s colour everywhere and most of the visuals are evocative rather than realistic, which fits a show that’s a fairytale and not a documentary.
The new choreography (Nick Winston) is energetic, a bit referential and constantly inventive, and the hard-working cast do a generally fine job with it. Anita Dobson leads them as the lovably exploitative and drink-sodden orphanage boss Miss Hannigan, and some of the best song-and-dance routines come from her in company with her ne’erdowell brother and his revolting girlfriend, Rooster (Richard Meek) and Lily (Jenny Gayner) – ‘Easy Street’, in particular.
Alex Bourne makes a fine figure as ‘Daddy’ Warbucks and sings in a warm baritone, and Carolyn Maitland fits the nice girl image very well as Grace Farrell.
It’s the kids who steal the show, though, and the first night’s Annie, Taziva-Faye Katsande, was brilliant in every way, including being a nice dancer. There are two other Annies on the tour, and three complete teams of ‘Hard Knock Life’ orphans. And Amber the labradoodle, playing Sandy the dog with all his West End experience, was a huge hit.
We all love a myth, and Americans love to make myths about their country more than most. But for all its warm-heartedness and Christmas theme, the storyline of Annie is a bit unsettling when you think about it. Warbucks admits he’s trodden on many others on his way to the top in business – is he really redeemed by one tokenistic act of generosity? Still, at least Roosevelt was a president who did more than just talk about national reconciliation and working with former opponents for the common good, unlike his present-day successor.