4th June 2017
Miranda Hart is the big name draw in this bouncy, colourful revival of the perennial childrens’ and families’ favourite about the cute little girl with the endlessly repeated big tune. While she may not be able to act, sing or dance in any recognisable ‘musical theatre’ way, she pleases the audiences every time she sets foot upon the stage and will presumably do enough to bring this production the ticket sales it seeks until such time as a better offer comes along.
Nikolai Foster is the artistic director of Curve Leicester and the director of this production; and it is his avowed mission to make his base the home of great musical theatre. How – exactly – this revival fits into that grand plan I will leave it to him to explain, but there are any number of producing houses the length and breadth of the country that could have come up with this outing. Colin Richmond’s designs (sets and costumes) are a riot of fun colour, very 50s in manner, although the show is resolutely grounded in the US Depression: you will have to decide for yourself how all those jigsaw pieces fit (a) together and (b) belong to the America of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Ben Cracknell lights everything to advantage, in the order that it makes its way on or off the stage, and – I’m sure – in strict accordance with the director’s wishes. Nick Winston choreographs the musical numbers with energetic insistence: the modest chorus of little orphanettes certainly give every ounce of what they’ve got into making their numbers the theatrical high point of the show; the grown-ups, however, although they often charm, can sometimes come across as rather more staid and repressed. This might be deliberate, but – well – this isn’t Clifford Odets.
Foster makes his way through the script in a faithful and disciplined way – he seems to enjoy emphasising the girls’ pluckiness, their relentless optimism, and their simplicity, but there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly imaginative or memorable in what he does with either them or anyone else. Moreover, given the show’s economic reliance on the central turn from Hart, this seems a shame: one might think that she, as a newcomer to musical theatre, might have been helped out by having a production better tailored to showcasing what she can do – create a marvelous bond with the audience – and not draw quite so much attention to areas where she is less skilled.
After Miranda, however, the next great asset of this entertainment is the magnificent collection of songs by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics). It doesn’t really sound like a unified, modern ‘score’, but it does sound a lot like so many period efforts by great tunesmiths and literate, elegant wordsmiths. Nonetheless, George Dyer’s orchestrations and musical arrangements keep reminding us of the relatively recent vintage of the work: it burst onto the scene in the mid-70s, and there is an awful lot here that has the brassy, brash, super-confidant swagger of tacky disco-era showbiz. (Come to think of it, maybe those jigsaw pieces are cast-offs from some TV-special of the period?)
The script by Thomas Meehan has worn much less well: the transitions between dialogue and music sometimes work effectively, but occasionally they seem a little forced and awkward; all the more reason for some kindly intervention by a director to smooth out the rough patches. And the book still allows ‘Tomorrow’ to be overdone. Totally. The ‘reprise ultimo’ that finally brings a stop to the proceedings really is like banging the last nail into its coffin. Be that as it may, there is nothing – no, not all the hijinks and fixed grins of the entire company – to stop Alex Bourne from walking off with the show through his brilliant rendition of Daddy Warbucks’ second act solo, ‘Something Was Missing’. There is a certain poetic justice in this: as thanks for him solidly trouping his way through it all, it is he who gets to find convincing emotional depth in the one really heartfelt number in the whole ‘Annie Songbook’.
The girls, and there are 21 of them in total, have plainly been selected for their ability to belt clearly enunciated lines all the way to the back of the Upper Circle (courtesy of Richard Brooker’s emphatic sound design), and they do so with uniform ‘General American’ accents that will sound as plausible to English ears as they will seem amusing to authentic Americans. I am sure they have all been to the very best stage schools, where they have been drilled into efficient automata who will produce precisely the same results every time. They are the kind of infants that most paying parents will admire for as long as the show lasts, while secretly giving thanks that their own offspring will never succumb to such a fate. That is not to say they will none of them acquire any kind of real personalities at some point in the future: but right now all they get to be are obedient puppets. And, remember, this is not ‘Matilda’, while the girls are permitted some juvenile ‘sassiness’, they do not often get to stand their own ground. The comparison is useful: in Dahl’s story, the heroine employs her intelligence and gets to transform her own home; in this tale, the heroine has to flee her background and use her immature feminine charm to take refuge in an adult-dominated world of wealth and privilege.
The rest of the cast fill in the gaps. Their finest hour is without any question the jolly opening to the second act: here Foster is at his best, and makes a really good fist of the grimly credible pastiche, ‘You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile’: a positively Nathaneal West-like anthem to the commercial exploitation of children (this musical’s cri-de-coeur, surely?). Here, overseen by the unctuous Bert Healy (a niftily energising turn from Bobby Delaney), we are urged, as only a really ‘sincere’ Broadway musical can urge us, to abandon ourselves to worshipping at the shrine of a brand of toothpaste. Here, we get a glimpse of what the show might have been. Elsewhere, Franklin D crops up – I mean, why not? – presiding over his cabinet, not getting anywhere with trying to run That Great Nation Of Theirs, unable to formulate any kind of meaningful policy until Our Annie is thrust upon them, and dishes out yet another cast iron helping of ‘Tomorrow’ (as Macbeth might say: … ‘and tomorrow, and tomorrow’). Then – hey, presto! – Roosevelt (in the amiable smiling form of Russell Wilcox, whizzing about the stage in his wheelchair like Bette Midler in ‘Art Or Bust’) coins the phrase that defined his era. I guess Little Orphan Annie would have to come back and sing him ‘that’ tune a few more times, so as he could work out all the fine details, and all. But you get the idea!
In such an environment, and against such odds, I leave it to the thoughtful reader to surmise just how effectively any of the cast can really hope to establish anything like a credible ‘characterisation’. The villains, Lily (Djalenga Scott) and Rooster (Jonny Fines), do what they can with the cardboard plotting inflicted on them by Meehan, and Golden Girl Grace Farrell (Holly Dale Spencer) does her sweet job of appearing simultaneously sexy and motherly. And so on.
All this carping aside, there is little prospect of this show failing to please a youthful and undemanding audience. Miranda’s fans, too, will find her before their very eyes doing her impersonation of an actress in a musical comedy, but they will perhaps not find this among her more notable successes. As an artist, at her best, she can find great truth in her comedy. This show, possibly, is not quite in that league. It’s bright, it’s cheerful, it’s fun. But maybe Hart just needs a little bit more experience on the stage before she can come into her own there as well.
Oh, and did I mention the dog? There’s a dog. And Christmas. And – I think – I spotted the odd nun.