Normally, Annie makes me extremely nervous. They're working with both children and animals. Isn't there an old adage warning specifically against that? What if one kid forgets her lines? What if the dog leaps into the orchestra pit? What if the dog forgets its lines and a kid leap into the pit? These are the kinds of questions apt to leave me a cringing, squirming, nail-biting mess, always anticipating some show-stopping disaster of extreme embarrassment.
But from the opening moments of this new production, I realized I was in safe hands. Scene one settles everything: the kids of the New York City Municipal Orphanage for Girls completely blitz it, with snappy acting, perfect timing and a ferocious rendition of 'Hard-Knocks Life'.
Catlin Marks, Annie on opening night, is glowing as she soars into 'Tomorrow', and keeps shining all through. Nancye Hayes, Chloe Dallimore and Todd McKenney are super colourful as the evil trio of Miss Hannigan, Lily St Regis and Rooster Hannigan, and give their version of 'Easy Street' plenty of cheeky flounce. I also thought Julie Goodwin as Grace and Jack Webster as Drake both added plenty of class, too. Anthony Warlow seems in cruise control for much of the night, giving more an exercise in avuncular charm than an image of a man finally discovering the true meaning of happiness, but by the time we hit 'I Don't Need Anything but You', he has turned the corner. Special mention too for Isabella Meilak as the adorably comic as Molly, runt of the orphaned litter.
So far, so good, but while act one is of the highest quality, things start to come a little unstuck in act two.
First, Alan Jones – what's with that? He's the one person who doesn't, or can't, bother with an American accent, and they make him the President of the United States of America!? Never mind the kids, it was Jones who had me squirming in consternation. It couldn't have been more embarrassing if Sandy had started humping the orphans. What is most baffling is that nobody even knows who he is. Granted, in Sydney, casting Jones may have been an effective piece of silliness, something to stir the pot, but in Melbourne he doesn't have that presence. As a result, you get this bizarre situation where most people, and especially kids in the audience, can't understand why there is this one random old guy who can't act, can't sing, can't dance and is sucking the life out of every scene he 'graces'. Not to sound too parochial, but we have plenty of washed up football coaches and belligerent radio hosts of our own – you never know, some of them might even be able to sing, too.
Second, Annie is actually a very strange story, and its strangeness comes through strongly in the second act of this production, distorting some of the initial good energy.
The musical is not based on a story from the original from the Harold Gray comics. It's the invention of director and lyricist Martin Charnin, who was inspired to start work on the musical in 1971 after buying an omnibus collection of the daily newspaper comic The Little Orphan Annie as a Christmas present for a friend. His idea was to show us Annie's origins – the story of how she first met Daddy Warbucks and the fate of her natural parents.
But there's something confected about the story he arrives at, something unsatisfying about the easy inevitability of Annie and Warbucks' family romance and the way Annie coasts effortlessly into her new life. In an interview with Time Out, Chloe Dallimore noted that it was hard to understand why Miss Hannigan hates Annie in particular. To me, it is almost like the rage of the "ordinary people" against the fairy tale success stories they're force-fed in television, books and movies. It is as though Miss Hannigan's resentment is the only real thing in the whole musical, and the cartoonish excess of the Warbucks mannor in Kenneth Foy's design for this production seem to emphasise this.
Third, that wig! As Time Out's seven-year-old reviewer of the Sydney season concisely put it: "Annie’s curly wig was stupid. Luckily she only wears that wig right at the end."
These weaknesses in the second half aside, the show is rampaging good fun, and very smoothly put together.
Chloe Dallimore on Annie