06 June 2012

Review: Annie

John Frost, Power Arts, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Two Left Feet
1 June 2012
Regent Theatre
to 12 August

Annie was the first big show I saw. It was the original Australian production (yes, the summer of 78/79) at the Festival Centre in Adelaide and it was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. It was better than The Aristocats film and even better than Disney on Ice!  And it had kids in it. It was aspirational and my cousins and I sang every bit we could remember from it. (Thanks Gran for taking us.) I so wanted to be an orphan, but I really wanted to be Annie*. It's Annie's fault that I'm here today.

Annie was THE show of 1978 in Australia. The songs were played on the radio, there were stories in every newspaper about the casting and finding the dogs at the pound. We knew the names of the local Annies and orphans. It was bigger than The Voice.

Being a teenager, I didn't see the film (naff), missed the 2000 revival (naff!) and so nearly didn't see the 2012 production because I was scared that my inner-10-year-old would have her memories of such a perfect experience shattered.

Annie is naff. Its a schmaltzy, feel-good story about an perky orphan showing a billionaire the importance of being perky and convincing the new US-depression-time President that the sun will come out tomorrow.  It's more twee than Lolcats,  has the worst wig in the history of all theatre (even in the 70s the curly red perm looked ridiculous) and if it were written today, there'd be an extra scene to help the Act 2 resolution where she runs away, is attacked on the streets and saved by Sandy the dog.

So the only way to tell this story and make it more than laughable ironic nostalgia is to make it as perfect as possible and to tell the story with love. And this is what director Karen Johnson Mortimer has done.

It starts with an exquisite design (Kenneth Foy) that incorporates projections of 1930s New York to bring us into its world. We begin in the grey and white film world of orphanage poverty and colour is added until we're dancing in the lavish world of hope, love and wealth.

The first cast on stage are the seven little Australian orphans and Annie (Hattie Hook, we adored you) singing "Maybe" and "Hard Knock Life". This is make or break it time and this young cast make it. Bring in the Nancye Hayes as nasty Miss Hanniagn (who was the original Lily and company director of the 2000 revival) and there's no doubt that this is an Annie as good as any of us remember.

The cast can't be faulted.  Julie Goodwin (not the Masterchef winner) as Grace, Todd McKenney as Rooster, Chloe Dallimore as Lily, Anthony Warlow returning from 2000 as Daddy Warbucks and one of the best ensembles I've seen tell this story like it's their own. It's not just talent and experience (although if you can't dance like Todd, you don't deserve to be on a musical theatre stage); it's being totally with your character (no matter how small) for every moment you're on the stage. We're not in the audience to see performers show off; we're there to see a story and have to believe in the characters on the stage.

If you've never seen Annie, you may not like it as a grown up. I sat next to a confused 20-something couple on a date: the only way this is a date show is if your hoping to get knocked up that night. But there were lots of children. Children who didn't utter a word during the show (anyone been to a movie where kids shut up?), children who sat there as entranced as I've ever seen anyone in a theatre. A little girl near me was crying in Act 2 when it seems like Annie may have to go away with her fake parents.

This is going to be as defining theatre/story moment for many of these children, so please don't hesitate to introduce any pre-teens you know to theatre with Annie. As a commercial show it is expensive (and even I was nearly tempted by an Annie key ring at the merchandise stand), which leaves so many people unable to see it. I'm not going to debate the cost of putting on these shows, but producers, you're very smart people, so there must be a way to open up seats to kids and families who would otherwise never have a chance to see Annie. Daddy Warbucks would find a way.

We've seen some seriously dull musical revivals in recent years. These shows have ruined memories of great shows and made first timers wonder what the fuss was about. Revivals have to be as great as this Annie. They have to be better than what came before. Cutting cost corners on development and rehearsal or talent and spectacle only leads to empty seats and reviewers writing things that make you upset.

Annie is as perfect as a production of Annie can be. Filled with heart and talent, it reminded me why I fell in love with musical theatre all those years ago.

I never got to be THAT Annie, despite my Grandpa never calling me anything else, but I showed off on many stages in my teens, have adopted pets from the street and had red curly hair for many years. But I haven't sat on a billionaire's lap and called him Daddy...yet.

* until I wanted to be Sandy (from Grease, not the dog), then Janet from Rocky Horror.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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