Left – Siena Elchaar, Anthony Warlow and Alan Jones. Cover – Orphans and Annie (Siena-Elchaar). Photos – Jeff Busby
Although I consider myself relatively well-versed when it comes to Broadway musicals and various aspects of early-to-mid 20th century American popular culture, I confess that I was broadly unfamiliar with Annie other than its best-known songs, knowing little about it besides the familiar image of a flame-haired urchin in a little red dress and that her benefactor was a fabulously wealthy businessman called Daddy Warbucks. I also knew there was a lovable dog in there somewhere, and that a couple of different film versions had been made of the musical, but I had never encountered them.
I was, of course, also aware that it was based on the very old (and only recently discontinued) comic strip Little Orphan Annie, about which I similarly knew very little other than the few main characters and vague premise.
While avoiding any exposure to old reviews or specific information about the musical version itself, I decided to nonetheless educate myself beforehand on the overall history of the “Annie” franchise and the original source material in particular, being as it was a fairly significant comic strip before, during and after the Great Depression. I wanted to know what it was all about.
This, perhaps, was my first mistake.
Although fidelity to source material in adaptation is a well-worn hobbyhorse of conflicting arguments (and something generally given a lot more latitude in the theatre world), it is nevertheless an atypical experience to be viewing an adaptation that is so actively subverting the intent and message of its subject matter.
On the superficial level of plot and character, Annie The Musical conforms moderately well to the original Little Orphan Annie comic strip, insofar as portraying the adventures of a hard-luck girl who escapes the deprivations of an orphanage by coming under the wing of a fabulously wealthy tycoon, amidst the airing of some social commentary about issues surrounding the Great Depression. And that, in fact, is precisely where things diverge rather dramatically.
Little Orphan Annie was the brainchild of one Harold Gray, a staunch conservative with a particular axe to grind about any policy that opposed unfettered free-market economics. Having created the strip before the Depression, Gray increasingly used it as a soapbox to attack workers’ unions, anti-child-labour crusaders and, most virulently, President Roosevelt and his Democrat administration’s “New Deal” economic reform program, railing against it as a profound affront to liberty, capitalism, and the American Way. Gray used his characters of Annie and Daddy Warbucks as mouthpieces to deride FDR’s presidency and policies, all the while being little effected by the Depression himself, due to the success of his strip.
Armed with this background on Little Orphan Annie but with virtually no specific foreknowledge about how it had been adapted into a musical, it was difficult not to be rather gobsmacked upon finding Warbucks being depicted as (while still a Republican industrialist billionaire) being on friendly terms with Roosevelt, and indeed FDR himself appears as a prominent and positively-portrayed character. More stupefying still is a scene which posits that Annie herself essentially inspires the Democrat President in the creation of his New Deal policy (even being revisited as the show’s closing number) – a development so profoundly antithetical to the ethos of Gray’s original strip that I’m sure it had the creator spinning in his grave when the musical debuted less than a decade after his death.
Of course, whether one is troubled by the subversion of Annie’s source text or indeed considers its philosophical 180 to be an improvement will depend a great deal on one’s personal politics, be they economic or theatrical. In any case, it remains a narrative which while ostensibly a filial love story nevertheless ultimately equates ideal happiness with wealth and rewards goodness with material opulence …much like the ending to Back to the Future, actually. Ultimately it is, it has to be said, profoundly American in its values.
For many, I suspect, these concerns will be largely irrelevant to their enjoyment of what is, after all, one of the most successful musicals of all time. Without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia born of any long-term familiarity with this piece, it is admittedly a little hard to entirely account for this success purely at face vale. It is a musical that feels neither genuinely classic nor dated in style (despite being made in the seventies, it was clearly evoking the Broadway of yesteryear) but somewhere in between, although to describe its subject matter as timeless would be a bit of a stretch.
Although trying earnestly to adopt a childlike headspace for what one can only assume is the main intended audience, I again found it difficult without the benefit of personal nostalgia to get entirely swept along by the sheer naiveté of the story. The high pathos of Oliver Twist this certainly is not. So, much like millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne taking on young Dick Grayson as his “ward”, it may be hard for some modern adult audiences to readily accept the wish-fulfillment of an orphaned child being adopted by an outrageously wealthy single man in the entirely innocent way in which it was intended. Blame the internet, blame Family Guy, or simply blame our cynical times in general, but it is genuinely difficult to imagine such a scenario being given as straightforward a treatment if it were newly penned in this day and age. And therein, perhaps, lies the pity.
Because when all is said and done, this can be quite an entertaining show. It has a charming, almost pantomime tone at times, with broad, amusing characters and a plot that young children will be able to follow, even if perhaps overly simplistic for adults. And although not a parade of hits, there are a few famous songs that you will probably recognise (hopefully not just from Jay-Z’s sampling) with some fun if understated choreography. As one might expect, it has the requisite bells and whistles of a big if not lavishly-budgeted production design, and the scenic art is well executed.
If you don’t have a strong attachment to the material, probably the best thing in this production is its fine cast. Chloë Dallimore forms a good double-act with Todd McKenney, who may not be getting any younger but sure still knows how to move like nobody’s business. Julie Goodwin hits the right note as the kindly but canny personal assistant Grace, and the irrepressible Nancye Hayes is marvelous as always in the role of Miss Hannigan, just a hair’s breadth away from turning into a panto wicked witch.
While there is something intensely perverse about Alan Jones (of all people!) playing President Roosevelt, one has to concede that his performance was adequate apart from some dodgy accent work, although in all fairness it is an undemanding role.
The child performers were very solid, and while none stood out as prodigies the chorus of girls at the orphanage provided one of the most endearing aspects of the show, especially the rather adorable Ayanda Dladla as Molly. And as for Annie herself, we were treated to one of the trio of girls alternating the part, Siena Elchaar. Although perhaps not possessing the strongest of voices, she more than made up for it with a confident and well-rehearsed stage presence that very ably filled the show’s title role.
Of course, the top-billed star of the production is Anthony Warlow, who is unfailingly charismatic while reprising his role as Daddy Warbucks, providing the accomplished performance one would expect of him to anchor the show. Although Warbucks is provided probably more character depth than any other part, it is nevertheless a fairly simplistic one and Warlow manages to infuse it with as much personality as the material allows him. It is, in some respects a role tailor-made for Warlow, looking every inch this kind of inversely heroic Lex Luthor, a self-made man of industry for whom nothing but his own follicles seems a challenge until his heart is captured by this new surrogate daughter.
Of course, if audience reaction is the ultimate gauge, then the REAL star was unquestionably Sandy the dog, if the audible gasps of adoration were anything to go by. I’m not sure which of the two credited pooches was performing on the night (my guess is Mickey), but it just goes to prove that family shows cannot fail to get extra brownie points for the inclusion of a cute dog.
Annie may not be to the taste of the uninitiated, but for young children and the legion of fans already familiar with the musical, this production is unlikely to disappoint. Whether the story of what fundamentally remains a tale of capitalist fantasia (despite or because of its subversion) is an appropriate or topical subject matter for such an audience is a question I leave to you.
Annie The Musical
Director Karen Johnson Mortimer
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Star City
Previews: from 29 December 2011
Opening Night: Thursday 5 January 2012
Tickets: $40.00 - $135.90
Bookings: 1300 795 267 | ticketmaster.com.au
Lyric Theatre, QPAC
From Saturday 7 April 2012
From Thursday 24 May 2012