'Annie': Theater Review

Miranda Hart with the Orphans in Annie at the Piccadilly Theatre  - Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Paul Coltas
Bet your bottom dollar that this will make big bucks.

The much-loved musical returns to the London stage with comedian Miranda Hart as Miss Hannigan, joining an already seasoned cast from the 2011 tour.

Aside from some key cast changes, the latest revival of Annie, which just opened in London, is by all accounts virtually the same production that premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011 before touring the U.K. Yet it’s a testament to director Nikolai Foster, his crew and the whole ensemble’s energy and commitment that this enduring musical feels as fresh now as it did back when it debuted on Broadway in 1977, let alone six years ago.

With a score by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Martin Charnin featuring the fiendishly viral likes of "Maybe," "Tomorrow" and "It's a Hard Knock Life"; a perky book by Thomas Meehan that honors the original comic strip's generosity of spirit; snap-pop choreography by Nick Winston; comedian Miranda Hart giving it her blowsy best as the dipsomaniac villain Miss Hannigan; and a terrific cohort of stage-school trained pre-teens and tots singing their lungs out — honestly, what’s not to like? Especially since the whole thing rattles along at an impressive clip in just two-and-a-half hours, including intermission. Booked into the Piccadilly Theatre through early January, the show is likely to see the sun coming out on many tomorrows even beyond that.  

Although Annie remains a highly improbable modern fairy tale, given that it’s about a ginger-haired 11-year-old (played on press night by an impish Ruby Stokes) adopted by a gruff but kindly billionaire (Alex Bourne, returning to the role from the U.K. tour), the material has always had a very dark edge, which is true of all the best fairy tales. After all, the protagonist is an orphan, abused at least psychologically and exploited by institution boss Miss Hannigan. The story is set in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression. The shanty town or "Hooverville" that Annie visits after she runs away is populated by starving people dispossessed by political and economic forces far beyond their control.

That surely struck a chord in 1977, in the wake of the recent recession and energy crisis, and it must have been especially, painfully resonant back in 2011 after the 2008 economic crisis from which we're still recovering today. With its broad awnings, Denman Street, where the Piccadilly Theatre is located, continues to attract homeless people seeking shelter from the London drizzle, as it has done for many years. So audiences need only to open the door, literally, to see a similar kind of suffering.

As depicted in the show, the year 1933 was also when President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented the New Deal to get the country working again. (The musical's grasp of history is a little shaky given the Christmas time frame; in real life, FDR had gotten things going months earlier in his first, historic 100 days in office.) So just as it's hard not to be struck by the parallels to poverty in the world today, it's equally difficult not to note the contrast between the show's innately good, intelligent and visionary president (played here by Russell Wilcox), a masterful bipartisan unifier who listens to his "Brain Trust" and the wisdom of optimistic little girls, and the real-world American president in power right now.

All that simmers away quietly in the background, and while it's clear that director Foster wants the audience to tune in to these parallels and ironies (the moment when one Brain Trustee warns about the rise of Chancellor Hitler is chilling), the show is generally just as ebullient and joyful as one could want — faithful to the source material but with a hefty injection of contemporary attitude.

The way the orphanage girls dance, for example, includes moves that wouldn't be out of place in a hip-hop crew's repertoire, leaping and strutting with adorable fierceness. There are a couple of kids of color in the cast (three different orphan teams will alternate each night), but they're neither especially favored by the blocking nor sidelined, and there's no cringe-inducing attempt to make the show "relevant" by making the material more urban, as with the atrocious recent film version starring Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhane Wallis.

At the same time, the hairstyles and slinky bias-cut dresses for the ladies keeps the show grounded in the early '30s, an era that still remembers how to do the Charleston and loved muted wah-wah trumpet playing. A little less era-appropriate is the odd use of Day-Glo colors on Colin Richmond's set, the production's least impressive feature, which comes festooned with jigsaw pieces and map motifs that fight each other, adding an unnecessary busyness.

Accents were a little messy and transatlantic on press night from the younger castmembers, but at least Bourne, Wilcox and the delightful Holly Dale Spencer as Daddy Warbucks' girl Friday, Grace, nail that clipped, Yankee diction that was in fashion at the time. Experienced musical-theater veteran Spencer brings a strong soprano to her few numbers, such as "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here," and she has excellent chemistry with Bourne. Hart, best known for her own TV show Miranda and Call the Midwife in the U.K., and for the Melissa McCarthy vehicle Spy in the U.S., is the name that will pull in the punters. She's predictably funny when it comes to delivering lines, although less confident as a singer. Luckily, the role leaves plenty of room for a comically off-key performance.  

Perhaps due to press-night nerves, Stokes was a little stiff and monotone in her acting as the title character, but her phenomenal voice, trained and pleasingly varied, compensated for any misgivings. For kids who only know the movie versions of the show starring Wallis and Aileen Quinn, neither of whom were especially good singers, this show will be a revelation. Stage schools across London are likely to see a spike in applications come next fall.

Venue: Piccadilly Theatre, London
Cast: Ruby Stokes, Miranda Hart, Alex Bourne, Madeleine Haynes, Lola Moxom, Jonny Fines, Djalenga Scott, Holly Dale Spencer, Russell Wilcox, Bobby Delaney, Keisha Atwell, Sophie Ayers, Nic Gibney, Patrick Harper, Ben Harrold, George Ioannides, Megan Louch, Benjamin Mundy, Ben Oliver, Heather Scott-Martin, Anne Smith, Kate Somerset How, Katie Warsop
Director: Nikolai Foster
Book: Thomas Meehan, based on the comic strip
Little Orphan Annie
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Martin Charnin
Set & costume designer: Colin Richmond
Lighting designer: Ben Cracknell
Sound designer: Richard Brooker
Choreographer: Nick Winston

Orchestrations & musical director: George Dyer
Presented by Michael Harrison, David Ian with Tulchin/Bartner, Michael Watt, Neil Laidlaw/Ramin Sabi