Annie must be one of the cheesiest musicals in the history of the world. The old Depression comic about Orphan Annie was given an improbable facelift in 1976, and the resultant musical by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin about the girl from the orphanage and the billionaire Oliver Warbucks was directed on Broadway by the wizardly Mike Nichols. You would have to have the soul of Herod to object to a musical about an orphan girl with a Depression setting and a cameo role for Franklin Roosevelt, though there are long mind-numbing moments in the current rather low-rent revival of Annie that are enough to bring out the dormant child-slayer in anyone.
This production, which is a touring moneyspinner for producer John Frost, scarcely deserves the talents of the great Anthony Warlow (or indeed Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney) and the fresh cast of high-voiced tots, all of whom do their best.
The production is rather vacantly directed by Karen Johnson Mortimer. The whole show is in the provincial straw hat category: it’s hard to hate as it burbles along sloppily, and it does have the riveting folly of Alan Jones, no less, as the great New Deal Democrat. But this is a middling to low-level revival rather than the kind of show (Mary Poppins, Love Never Dies) which demonstrates that Australian commercial theatre can match — and occasionally surpass — Broadway and the West End.
It didn’t help that we found ourselves in the hands of a publicist, one Jay Lawrence, who had extreme difficulty ten minutes before starting time in finding your Spectator Australia critic the requisite upgraded seats from which the show could be reviewed and who when we remonstrated with him said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what, Peter, don’t review it.’
Such faith in the product was only enhanced by this gentleman barring The Spectator Australia from the aftershow party and declaring, bare-faced, that John Frost’s hospitality only extended to cast members and investors, which seemed an odd way to describe my journalistic colleagues and entertainment world friends. (It has to be admitted, though, that he did at the end of the day produce excellent front stall seats for the show.)
Ideally you want to see Annie with a child, and therefore through the eyes of a child. And it’s a pity that this production doesn’t come with the kind of magic dust that will take you back to childhood enchantments.
The kids chirrup and dance about with plenty of talent and grace, unassisted by the kind of directorial eye that would concentrate their talent and make them seem real as well as cute and cosy. Annie is a perilously sweet confection if it is given to an ordinary director who thinks it can be realised in broad outline and simply play itself.
This production is full of chocolate-box scenery that might seduce a seven-year-old but is essentially a compound of corn and cliché. And the general level of the acting is camp colonial so that it makes, say, Simon Phillips, on one of his less sparkling days, look like Moss Hart at the height of his powers.
Even so, there’s plenty of talent on show. Caitlin Marks, the first-night Annie, could have done with a bit of the cutesie-pie quality toned down, but despite a few moments of strain vocally it was a good performance (though someone should rethink that hideous mop of permed, red, Shirley Temple curls that is the signature Annie look).
But you can’t object to kids who have the chutzpah to hold a stage with this kind of charm and at the end of the day the instinctive sourness that defends against toxic sentimentalism does tend to evaporate.
The great moment in Annie — the ‘Rain in Spain’ moment of theatrical wonderment — comes when Warbucks takes the irresistible foundling to see Roosevelt, and the President and his White House staff break into an impassioned reprise of ‘Tomorrow’ and discover the New Deal in one tremendous burst of improbable song.
The fact that FDR in this production of Annie is played by that famous radio voice of the Right, Alan Jones — who cannot sing a lick and whose eastern seaboard American accent collapses after a few words into his normal North Shore schoolmasterishness — just makes the moment that bit more ridiculous and sublime. The thought of Alan Jones endorsing the sweeping Keynesianism of the man US businessmen of the Thirties considered a class traitor is too funny for words.
It’s a reminder too that there are mighty forces of the popular imagination at the centre of the Annie phenomenon.
Kat Stewart, the Offspring star, told me once how seeing Annie as a little girl in London pushed her towards the stage, and this rather humble production will probably do the trick for some little girls with an itch to perform.
The adult talent on display here is often formidable. Nancye Hayes is a vivid cartoon as the orphanage ogress Miss Hannigan. Julie Goodwin sings beautifully and acts quite adequately as Grace. Todd McKenney gives a good charismatic sketch of the ne’er-do-well Rooster Hannigan, and his rendition of ‘Easy Street’ with the marvellous Hayes and the ethereal long-limbed Chloe Dallimore is one of the highlights of the show.
Then, of course, there’s Anthony Warlow. The broad lines of this production don’t allow him to do much with the characterisation of Warbucks, but whenever he opens his mouth to sing a world of feeling and expressiveness reminds us what a gift to the musical theatre he is. Annie allows him none of the range of mood and tonalities that Doctor Zhivago did and Karen Johnson Mortimer’s production stands in relation to Des McAnuff’s the way an also-ran cartoon does to a Bill Henson photo, but Warlow even in this bluff characterisation is still a marvel. Elsewhere this version of Annie is parish pump commercial theatre, immeasurably inferior to what J.C. Williamson contrived in their heyday. We can only hope that the John Frost South Pacific is a lot better than this.
Annie is at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne until 12 August, and transfers to the Burswood Theatre in Perth from 24 August.Tags: iapps