Thomas Meehan, Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin
Michael Harrison, David Ian
Wales Millennium Centre
The musical adaptation of Harold Grey’s newspaper cartoon strip Little Orphan Annie has been delighting (and, legendarily, irritating) audiences worldwide for over forty years now, having won the Tony award in 1977, and subject to literally hundreds of professional and amateur productions ever since, as well as two high-profile films—all of which I had somehow managed to avoid (leaving aside the signature songs, of course).
This touring production, based on the 2017 West End revival, has a revolving cast, not only in the leading and supporting child roles, but also in respect of primary villain Miss Hannigan. This visit to Cardiff sees veteran choreographer Craig Revel Horwood take over the role from Lesley Joseph—a last hurrah before returning to his more familiar guise as a judge on Strictly Come Dancing.
The story is set in 1930s New York, at the height of the Depression. Amongst the small group of girls being kept in sub-standard accommodation, on starvation rations and having their labour exploited by the aforementioned orphanage boss, is the irrepressibly upbeat Annie. She holds onto the hope that the parents who abandoned her will, against all the odds, come back for her.
Salvation comes, instead, from self-made billionaire Oliver Warbucks, who charges his secretary, Grace, with the responsibility of finding an orphan who would appreciate a Christmas holiday at his mansion. Overcoming his initial disappointment at the red-headed waif being a girl rather than a boy, he soon warms to her and promises to use his vast resources and high-powered contacts (including the President of the USA) to help her find her parents. But will Miss Hannigan’s crooked brother Rooster succeed in exploiting the situation to his own advantage?
The success of the show depends, to a large extent, on the likeability of Annie. Luckily, in this production, young Mia Lakha (across the run the role is also played by Kiana Dumbaya and Ava Smith), under the direction of Nikolai Foster, gets the tone just right: sweetly facetious without being ingratiating and with a strong singing voice.
Horwood also displays previously unsuspected vocal and comic talent as Miss Hannigan, a brassy, bitter alcoholic spinster whom he manages to make cartoonishly evil without tipping over into pantomime dame territory.
Alex Bourne carries off the potentially one-dimensional role of “Daddy” Warbucks with great style; and Carolyn Maitland also impresses as the lovelorn Grace.
The supporting cast, disporting themselves on Colin Richmond’s jigsaw-themed set, handle Nick Winston’s choreography with great skill, spiritedly conveying the good humour which transcends the bleakness of the show’s premise.
And it was a pleasant surprise to discover that “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life” aren’t the only memorable songs in the score, which is beautifully played by the live band under the baton of Daniel Griffin.
If here is a criticism, it is that perhaps any intimacy is lost in a venue the size of the Donald Gordon auditorium, the orphans perhaps suffering most, despite their feistiness. And Amber, as Sandy the dog, is a largely underwhelming presence.
In the end, though, Annie is a highly effective tonic, its message that optimism will always be rewarded received with great enthusiasm by an audience including a high percentage of children, most of whom remained engaged throughout.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith