Annie - The Musical

Forty years after first taking to the stage, the world's most beloved orphan shows little sign of her age in this riot of colour and movement at the Millennium Forum

Like Barbie a couple of years back, Annie has reached middle-age. This popular musical, running all this week in Derry’s Millennium Forum, had its premiere forty years ago on August 10, 1976 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. Its London premiere was two years later and it clocked up almost 1500 performances in three years.

It is reckoned that Annie is produced 700 to 900 times a year in the US by amateur and professional groups, making it one of most popular 'modern' musicals ever staged. The combination of a band of likeable orphan children – as in Oliver – the stage villains, and the triumph of good over evil, ticks most of the boxes. A sort of ‘Sound of Music’ without the love interest or Nazis. And the opportunity it provides for cute and stage-friendly child actors in key roles makes it a winner for school productions.

So the central question is: Does Annie show her age in this production? Has it lost any of its charm, its street-wise quirkiness, or its appeal as the story of a lost orphan who finds her own ‘Daddy’ in the end? And as for millionaire Oliver Warbucks, in the wake of our more recent global banking crash, can we still take seriously the character’s generosity and capacity for love?

For the story is set in the early 1930s on America’s East Coast against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Franklin D. Roosevelt has just come to power. There is widespread poverty, unemployment and fear for the future. And yes, Roosevelt features in the plot, alongside J. Edgar Hoover and a bevy of FBI agents.

We get a momentary flash of the Jazz Age too, in the New York City scene in the first act, which opens with a few bars borrowed from Gershwin’s 'Rhapsody in Blue'.

Annie is sometimes regarded as a show for kids – and there are plenty of young children in the Forum tonight - but older people will also find something to chew on in the references to the stock market collapse, the ‘New Deal’ and the notorious 1930s Hoovervilles.

Annie Competition

Annie lives with six other orphans in Miss Hannigan’s ‘orphanage’ - symptomatic of the plight of many abandoned children during the Depression. Their lot is child labour, meagre rations and poor prospects.

The plot of the musical unfolds over Christmastime when the wealthy Warbucks (Alex Bourne) invites her to share his home over the festive period. He takes to the child and wants to adopt her. Hers is a tricky role: to combine innocence and naivety with street-wisdom and self-reliance.

Tonight’s young Annie does well – sings sweetly and shows a real turn for dancing - but at times, particularly at the start of the performance when the sound system is overpowering, she seems to be forcing her voice – a young girl’s, after all - rather than letting the melody take its own course. Maybe a opening night hitch that will be resolved?

However, it is the dance routines that steal the show. The choreography is superb throughout: inventive, energetic and exuberant. Every scene has rumbustious and lively set pieces with the infectious, bubbling vitality you expect of a West End production.

The Forum stage is used to its full capacity in a riot of colour and movement. Several of the dance routines are outstanding: the trio of ‘baddies’ whose slapstick brings a smile to the face, the Warbucks/Annie dance with its touch of Fred Astaire, and the Nureyev-like trio of New York cabbies leaping in the air. The children in the audience are spellbound by it all, especially during a lengthy second act long past most of their bedtimes. 

The leading actor in the show – in terms of celebrity – is the cruel Miss Hannigan of the wicked cackle, itching with malice, and swigging at a wine bottle. She is played by Lesley Joseph from Birds of a Feather, where she is known for her tight-fitting catsuits and vampish attitude.

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Here, by contrast, Joseph is more of a ‘witch-fatale’, her exaggeration of the sadistic baddie a thing of delight - the pantomime dame rather than the incorrigibly corrupt matron of the orphanage.

Her young charges – the seven orphans - although lively and accomplished in their own right, are inevitably overshadowed by the professionalism of the adult cast. Each is skilled in dancing, singing and acting out the story, backed up by the almost seamless scene changes of an imaginative set.

Even when the singing stops and dialogue takes over - as in the penultimate, despondent moment towards the end of the second act - the mood is not lost nor is the sense of the 1930s dissipated.

This sparkling London production has a local link in the costume design, by Ballymoney-born award-winning designer Colin Richmond. His wardrobes finely reflect the opposite extremes of the Depression Years: the rags of the orphans at one end and Warbuck’s smartly tailored double-breasted suits and his secretary’s smart couture suits and elegant gowns at the other. A feast for the eyes of any fashion-loving mothers and grannies in the audience.

This Annie – at least the third production of the musical at the Forum since 2001 - is an all-singing, all-dancing, superbly directed show with lots of good tunes. There’s more to it than the well-known and much-played 'Tomorrow', which first appears about fifteen minutes in and then joyously reprises to close the story.

It’s a show for all the family, at times full of pathos, but in the end a feel-good story of an orphan who triumphs over her circumstances and of the one-time lonely millionaire who turns his life around by adopting her. Forum audiences will love it - not just for the singing, but for the dancing. Indeed, consider it a ballet extraordinaire with some really good tunes to boot. Annie has aged well.

Annie continues at the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry, until Saturday February 27. For ticket booking visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk or call 028 7126 4455.