I’m sitting here wondering how many musicals began life as comics. As distinct, you understand, from animated movie musicals, of which there are, clearly, many. In Japan, musicals based on popular anime or manga characters are rife, apparently. Anyway, brain wracked enough on a muggy Sydney summer day, I conclude there’ve been precious few. Annie is one, being rooted in the Harold gray strip, Little Orphan Annie, which he laboured over for 45 years. That’s a lot longer than it takes to raise a real orphan, after all. Or, perhaps, a whole tribe of ’em.
Gray was about the same vintage as my own maternal grandfather, so died long before his creation was adapted as a Broadway musical, in 1977 (the year I completed my HSC, for what it’s worth, which isn’t anything at all now and wasn’t much then). Thomas Meehan wrote the book, Martin Charnin the lyrics and Charles Strouse the music. It’s hard to know whose contributions worked the real magic, or if it was serendipitous, synergistic happenstance that led to its record-breaking six-year run and its spawning of almost countless international productions in 22 countries which, apparently, continue until the present (the productions and the countries).
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And yet, despite its endurance, Annie isn’t woven into the fabric of our lives in quite the institutional way of, say, The Sound Of Music, which is a little puzzling.OK, it mightn’t have quite so many hummable tunes, I s’pose. But it does have a couple of all-out crackers (to surrender to contemporary cliche); these being, of course, It’s The Hard-Knock Life and, much moreso, Tomorrow. But the real question is, how does a ’77 musical based on a hand-drawn character conceived circa 1924 (and, in turn, based on a James Whitcomb Riley poem, from 1885, predating even Gray) stack up in 2012? One blessed with enough backing to attract the likes of Anthony Warlow and (almost inarguably) the first lady of Australian musical theatre, Nancye Hayes.
Well, (Little Orphan) Annie might sound way too old-school to have any possible relevance to ‘gen i’ but, when you come to think about, as we sit on the edge of a crumbling cliff, looking down to economic and environmental ruin, what are we lacking that an iPhone app can’t address? Hope? If so, Annie should hit home as powerfully as ever, surely, given it’s focus on that commodity; albeit one as virtual, inaccessible and intangible as any other reality we may face. You might scoff and think, I’m way too sophisticated, urbane and cynical to fall for that ‘never give up!’ mantra. But let’s face it, at various times in our lives, we all need it and are prone to succumbing at other times, too. We are, like it or not, when all’s said and done and the truth be told, incurably romantic sentimentalists. Annie, the musical, like any worthy of a Best Musical Tony, seems to know this, intuitively. Thus, it can play us like fiddles with tunes such as those aforementioned, as well as other memorables, like Easy Street and NYC. It knows our emotions and how to manipulate them.
Nostalgia, of course, is a prime mover and, quite apart from that engendered by our notions of Little Orphan Annie, gathered from popular culture at large across generations, there’s the soldiering Ant Warlow, as Warbucks, or Starbucks, or somebody, the charismatic, Bransonesque chick-magnate, reprising a role in which so many have revered him. And, for those of us old enough to remember just how experienced and accomplished a performer she is, right alongside is Nancye Hayes, giving good arch-villain, as Miss Hannigan. And the casting thrills don’t end there: Todd McKenney; Chloe Dallimore; Julie Goodwin; Alan Jones. Huh? Alan Jones?! That’s right, Gloria makes what we can only hope is his first-and-last musical stage appearance, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd prez of those United States. Unlike FDR, praise the Lord, Jones, notwithstanding his undeniable and deeply regrettable influence, has never been a pivotal figure in world events and God protect us if ever he is. Of course, he’s not a pivotal figure in theatrical events either. It’s a clever promotional gimmick of questionable necessity and merit (AJ can’t contrive an accent, but at least has a stab at carrying a tune) that cheats decent professional actors out of a worthwhile role. Still, if it keeps Jones from plying his usual trade in ratbaggery, it’s got to be a good thing. And there’s something deliciously ironic about about Australia’s answer to Gingrich, if not Genghis Khan, playing a Democrat.
Fortunately, there’s plenty to compensate. While the hamfisted design of the opening and closing projections (like the clumsy heavyhandedness of the programme) and some other, rather cheaply rendered images leave quite a bit to be desired, the sets and scenery are superlative, with debit and credit applying, strangely, to the same man, in Kenneth Foy. Perhaps he spent so much time and energy on the latter, the former went a bit wanting. The realisation of his vision has been achieved with extraordinary precision: even Crow, where we were, revealed the slightest defect or betrayal of reality. Kudos must go also to head mechanist, Cam Flint and his hardworking crew, as, despite a highly-complex series of scene changes, nothing went even vaguely awry. These are the unsung heroes of theatre production.
Kristian Fredrikson’s costumes are also right on Daddy Warbuck’s money, with elegant gowns for Warbuck’s private secretary, Grace (Goodwin) and just the right, high-waisted, generous cut of suits for the blokes, from FDR down. Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting design is notable for the fact I barely gave lighting a second thought: always a measure, I think, of that job well-accomplished. Likewise, Michael Waters sound design is exceptional: vocals were as clear as they get with worn mikes and the orchestra had an exceptionally bright, forthright, shiny sound. Speaking of which, Peter Casey’s conducting and musical direction is, literally, brilliant. Kelly Aykers choreography, too, is well-judged, adapting itself to the skill thresholds of the dancers beautifully; nothing is overwrought, not even in Todd McKenney’s flashy sequences.
There are, as you might imagine, a veritable classroom full of multi-talented kids on-board, including three rotating Annies. For opening night, it was Siena Elchaar who won the toss and in no department did she disappoint. With beaming smile and big, almond eyes, you could hardly object to her precocious waifdom, as the affecting Annie. One has the sense she was directed to sing like a kid, rather than a singer (of which she seemed well-and-truly capable), to preserve our capacity for sympathy. I think I might’ve swung it a little more in the other direction, but, that’s no criticism of Elchaar who, like all the other kids on stage, have already shown themselves to have incandescent potential. Consequently, don’t be at all surprised to see, hear and read more about Gemma Bell, Imogen Ovijach, Alessandra Kitinas, Emily Maclean, Skye Azzopardi, Maddison Smith-Catlin or the irresistibly cute Ayanda Dladla (who plays Molly; surely the character Bill Cosby modelled his screen daughter, Rudi, on).
There are strong supporting performances from the versatile likes of Matt Young, Todd Goddard, Sam Riley, Luke Joslin, Tony Farrell, Jack Webster , Lisa Bluthal and Rod Waterworth, among others.
Julie Goodwin sings meltingly and proves herself to be a very efficacious actor, to boot, as Warbucks’ faithful, indefatigable and perspicacious PA, Grace. In fact, the character name sums up her performance, which is eminently watchable, and listenable, to say nothing of downright enchanting.
The lanky Chloe Dallimore tarts it up a treat as Lily St Regis, while McKenney seems to invest everything he’s got (and that’s a lot), as the scheming, scamming Rooster.
Nancye Hayes is as characterful and comical as ever, showing herself, yet again, to be a supertrouper and star, with a performance as evocatively drawn as Harold Gray’s original; if not moreso.
Anthony Warlow makes looking and sounding fabulous so effortless, it’s easy to be seduced into the idea that we can all do it. But the fact is, noone does it like him, with as much talent, finely-tuned skill, charisma, polish, savoir-faire, cool, or class. Noone rouses acclamation as readily, and it’s patent as to why he’s so damn popular. He’s the James Bond of musical theatre and, even if you wanted to hate him for the adoration he attracts, you just can’t. Neither the clarity nor timbre of his voice ever show any hint of wavering or waning. He is superb.
Director Karen Johnson Mortimer has brought all these elements together, flawlessly, into a cohesive whole. I’m no Annie aficonado (I haven’t even seen the film; tsk, tsk), so can’t say if this is the best Annie ever. But I can’t really, clearly, imagine a better one. It’s a good thing we’ve John Frost and partners in our midst, to keep bringing us such big, flashy, uplifting, escapist shows.
The details: Annie plays the Lyric Theatre in Sydney for a 12-week season. It opens at Brisbane’s Lyric Theatre on April 7 and at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on May 24. All tickets through Ticketmaster.