As a populist piece of entertainment Annie, Thomas Meehan, Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse’s 1977 musical has always appealed to those who love their shows schmaltzy and sentimental and taking it as such, Nikolai Foster’s revival will surely entertain many. There are sunny tunes a-plenty, wall-to-wall energetic tots and a tug at your heart strings story, but high art it isn’t and the plot that threads together the musical theatre mega-hits is paper-thin.
The tale of 11-year old Annie left on the steps of a New York orphanage as a baby, still clinging to the desperate hope that her parents will return to claim her, is one of hope and optimism in the face of adversity. Set during the Depression, the plot has a familiar resonance – the wide-spread poverty and desperation are not so far removed from the world outside the doors of the theatre, however, the uneven book has its lulls and at times the attention drifts (a fact seemingly acknowledged by the director, who sends the cute canine member of the cast, Sandy (Amber) on stage to enliven any moments of boredom).
Foster’s new production has more than the hint of the RSC’s Matilda about it, from the jigsaw piece decorated set (building blocks in Matilda) to the sharp, modern choreography (which is absolutely first-rate), it shows its influences on its sleeve. That said, the set design and lighting are a visual treat.
The first-rate cast is deserving of high praise: Alex Bourne’s Oliver Warbucks is fine-voiced, fleet-footed and assured and Holly Dale Spencer’s Grace is a pitch-perfect, well-judged delight. The pint-sized orphans are well-drilled, energetic and characterful, the ensemble is universally razor-sharp and Elise Blake’s Annie is highly competent if lacking a little warmth.
Musicals have come a long way since Annie’s appearance in 1977 and Foster’s production delivers visually for a modern audience, but there’s just something missing in the musical itself that a great director, innovative choreographer, talented set designer and first-rate cast just can’t overcome. If you like your entertainment sweet, syrupy and sentimental and thoroughly family-friendly then you’ll love it – those looking for something with a bit more grit should look elsewhere.
Runs until 20 February 2016 |Image: Matt Crockett