THE long-running comic strip Little Orphan Annie, 1922/2010, particularly the first 63 years when it was drawn by its originator Harald Gray, was full of often controversial political and social comment. By the time it reached Broadway and London’s West End in the late 1970s it had become a much softer sentimental tale which audiences quickly took to their hearts.
Without going anywhere near those original controversial lines, director Nikolai Foster has ditched some of the sentiment to give this production a sharper edge. He is aided in these efforts by Richard Brooker’s sound design and George Dyer’s orchestrations, which give a metallic sound to most of the dialogue and vocals. In doing so they take much of the warmth out of the characters and sentiment out of the story.
Nick Winston picks up the same theme in his choreography, adding a slickness to the dancing that has rarely been seen in previous productions, but which certainly fits into the “Hooverville” number, which, in the hands of a fiery chorus, became a cry from the heart against an unjust world. It also adds more harsh reality than can usually be found to the Orphans’ opening, Hard Knock Life number, but detracts from their heartwarming sadness and search for love usually so near the surface of those loveable moppets.
Even their delightful take-off of the radio close harmony singers the Boylan Sisters, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile, had the efficiency of a well rehearsed number rather than the spontaneity of six youngsters having fun about it. That said, they still out-gunned the adult contribution to the number by a wide margin.
They continually up-staged the adults who shared the scene with them as did Annie, played alternately each performance by Freya Yates, Ava Smith and Taziva-Faye Katsande. On her own Annie was a challenge, especially when belting out numbers like Tomorrow, and when accompanied by her five-year-old Labradoodle Amber (Sandy the Labradoodle) she was irresistible.
Anita Dobson approached the role of Miss Hannigan, the harridan who runs the orphanage, with mouth watering anticipation and relish, at times unnecessarily pushing a little too hard in a role already broadly written to maintain her place as the focal point of a scene. When she got all conspiratorial with her super slick ne’erdo-well brother Rooster, Richard Meek, and his not-so-dumb blonde girlfriend Lily, Jenny Gayner, Anita was completely in control; of the situation, and the trio successfully launched into Easy Street with controlled gusto.
There was a fine authoritative Daddy Warbucks from Alex Bourne, showing nice hints of affection towards his attractive secretary Grace Farrell, stylishly played by Carolyn Maitland (whose vocal talents were sadly underused).
With those big orchestrations, and MD Daniel Griffin and his musicians champing at the bit to make the most of them, plus some fanciful not always effective lighting, you had the impression that director Nikolai Foster was anxious to turn this into a larger scale musical than is good for what at heart is a perhaps over-sentimental, warm hearted story of a feisty little girl finding love and affection.
Annie continues at Bristol Hippodrome until 23rd March, and stops at the Mayflower in Southampton from 30th April to 4th May, and Plymouth Theatre Royal from 6th to 11th May, both with Craig Revel Horwood as Miss Hannigan.