"Annie" is a musical that needs little introduction; the story of "Little Orphan Annie" was adapted for the musical stage in the late 1970s from the comic strip that began in 1924 and went on to become one of the most successful musicals on Broadway at that time. Featuring some of the most famous songs in musical theatre, including Tomorrow and Hard Knock Life, this new touring production is directed by Nikolai Foster, artistic director of the Curve, Leicester, and is a bright and colourful affair that bursts with thrilling energy.
Foster is a rather under-valued director whose name is not (yet) as well known as it deserves to be. His direction for "Annie" is beyond assured and is a fine indicator of how well he is able to orchestrate a large scale production such as this. Foster is able to deftly manipulate the smallest detail, be it lighting, sound or piece of acting business, so that each piece builds up into the most satisfying construct of theatre where nothing is wasted. Whilst the libretto has the occasional moment that threatens to drag, Foster is able to marshal his forces into keeping the stage alive and this is true from the outset given his decision to dispense with the overture and to instead dive straight into the plot following the period radio broadcasts that are heard as the audience take their seats.
Nick Winston's choreography is exciting, witty and smart and perfectly attuned to Foster's direction and the musical numbers are executed with verve by an excellent ensemble of performers.
Colin Richmond's costumes are period specific and have the vivacity of a living comic strip whilst his set design, a playing area decorated with the map of NYC and other details broken up using an odd motif of jigsaw pieces (reminiscent of the alphabet tiles throughout the design of the musical "Matilda"), becomes filled with beautifully realised scenic elements making up such scenic delights as a gloriously near-caricature of an NYC 'Hooverville', the grim orphanage and the elegant art-deco Mansion of "Oliver Warbucks". The lighting design of Ben Cracknell works brilliantly well in tandem with the set being vivacious and kinetic whilst also creating some beautifully moody and evocative sequences where appropriate.
The orchestra, led by accomplished musical director George Dyer, are sprightly, energised and powerful and the orchestrations by Dyer are punchy, elegant and animatedly rousing.
It is not unfair to say that a lot of the success of "Annie" relies on the portrayal of "Miss Hannigan" and Elaine C Smith is, bizarrely, not up to the comedic demands of the role. Her vocal chops are perfectly adequate, even if her dance skills are not, but there are moments where she looks unsure and her portrayal threatens to drag down the energy of some of the scenes she is in. She is more than ably supported in many of her scenes by Jonny Fines as "Rooster" and Djalenga Scott as "Lily St Regis" who are quite brilliant, both vocally and physically. Their portrayals are finely tuned and they dazzle throughout. Fines especially hints at the dangerous predator that lurks beneath the barely placid surface of an already detestable character.
The "Daddy Warbucks" of Alex Bourne is presented as a more kindly figure from the off as opposed to the usual portrayal and he lends a commanding presence and fine voice to the role and is one of the few more natural realisations in an otherwise larger then life production.
In the title role Elise Blake is a dynamic, charming and vocally gifted "Annie" who never fails to be a sympathetic and eye-drawing force. She is a talent to keep an eye on indeed. In fact, the entire company of orphan girls (Team Rockefeller at this performance) are strong and vibrant and each presents a separate and engaging character and the stage is never more alive than when they appear on it. Their first number, Hard Knock Life, sets a standard of excellence that proves to be an accurate marker for the quality and vivaciousness of the production as a whole.
Of course, it would be amiss not to highlight what many would consider the true 'star' of the production: "Sandy", here played by Amber who presents a most sympathetic and engaging furry figure eliciting some profound 'ah-ing' from audience members. Quite frankly, it's a shame the dog is not utilised more.
This production of "Annie" is a striking comic strip come to life and is a jubilant production of pure joy bursting with outstanding talent both on and off stage. Nikolai Foster's new production sets a new standard in the quality of touring musical theatre, both in the design and the casting, and I hope that other producers take note for future productions. There is so very much to enjoy in this production - nearly everything, actually.