ONE of the criticisms leveled at the musical Annie is that it is too sweet and sentimental, and to an extent that is probably true, which only goes to prove how far this feelgood musical adaptation of the adventures of Little Orphan Annie, the comic strip that was printed in American newspapers from 1924 to 2010, had come away from Harold Gray’s original concept.
At different times it had been described as subversive, brutal and politically dangerous. Certainly, you could not accuse Gray, who drew the script right through until his death in 1967, of pulling his punches when it came to attacking those things he disliked. His targets included corrupt labour, businessmen, communism and Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal policy, which Gray felt was an intrusion on personal liberties.
And you certainly can’t accuse director Nicolai Foster of wallowing in sentiment, especially in the first act of this production, where number after number is presented with determined aggression. The song Maybe was delivered with uninhibited power by young Tamil star Sharangi Gnanavarathan, making her professional stage debut as Annie. The six orphans in It’s a Hard Knock Life matched the intensity and sharp-edged interpretation of choreographer Nick Winston’s moves, as did the ensemble as the derelict unemployed in We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover.
With two other Annies, Zoe Akinyosande and Harlie Barthram, ready to take over on alternate nights, those fiercely enthusiastic orphans and a beautiful Labradoodle named Amber playing Annie’s dog Sandy, the adults in the cast had to be on their toes just to hold their own.
The pick of those adult roles, of alcoholic orphanage matron Miss Hannigan, went to Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel-Horwood. Showing admirable restraint, making the character all the more dangerous by keeping her well within the bounds of reality, and (as was to be expected) a more that ordinary ability when the chance to show off his dancing skills came in Easy Street, this Miss Hannigan was more than just a figure of fun.
Craig’s partnership with Paul French and Billie Kay, as con-man brother Rooster and his not- too-bright girl friend Lily, was as strong verbally as it was as a song and dance trio.
There was more of the soft-hearted lonely man than hard-headed businessman in Alex Bourne’s likable Daddy Warbucks, easy to see why his efficient secretary Grace, Amelia Adams, was so ready move their relationship onto a much more personal level. I doubt that Gray would have approved of Warbucks and the President being such close allies, but with Annie’s help they provided a stirring rendition of Tomorrow.
The optimism and feelgood factor that was bypassed in act one came into its own in the show- stopping You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile. Set in a 1930s Radio Studio, with the ensemble, led by Lukin Simmonds as a big ham of a radio presenter, providing a fascinating backing group, ranging from effects people to the close harmony singers the Boylan Sisters, its one of those irresistible toe-tapping, smile-on-your-face numbers – especially when the scene changes to the orphanage and the orphans take it on to a big boisterous finish.
From there on, despite the occasional down-turn it is always going to be a happy ending, and the audience buoyed up by that number, never lose the smiles on their faces, leaving the theatre in the sort of happy mood that the authors, composer, producers and players of this show were hoping for when they set out their stall.
The Bristol Hippodrome performances, on stage until 25th November (with Jodi Prenger taking over Miss Hannigan on Saturday) is the last stop on the extensive UK tour that started with the late Paul O’Grady as one of the Miss Hannigans.