As someone who was a childhood fan of the film version of Annie, I will try to avoid comparing the stage show to the film throughout this review! The well-known story follows the antics of Annie (a stellar Taziva-Faye Katsande), a chirpy orphan whose charming optimism helps her through the hardships of life in a neglected municipal orphanage. She is temporarily fostered by billionaire businessman Oliver Warbucks (played with suitable suave gravitas by Alex Bourne) who decides to invest some of his fortune into helping her find her real parents. Along the way, she meets President Roosevelt, and her optimism inspires him to take a new approach to the country's financial troubles. While this last point may seem farfetched on reflection, I would challenge anyone to see this without feeling a little more happy and hopeful.
The touring show is a new incarnation of the original Broadway production, first performed over 40 years ago in the 1970s. Several worldwide tours, two film adaptations and a handful of prestigious awards later, it is a testament to a passionate team that the musical still feels fresh, even while the song lyrics remain largely unchanged. The chemistry between the cast and particularly the magnetic personality of Anita Dobson's Miss Hannigan, clearly revelling in her villainy, all enhanced by the 'big band' feel of the orchestra, make this a must-see production for fans old and new.
The girls in the chorus are a real credit to choreographers Amy West and Nick Winston - they injected energy into the show from the very outset with a rollicking 'Hard Knock Life', combining neat coordination with punchy, powerful moves which continued in the subsequent numbers. While all the 'orphans' showed talent beyond their years, the impossibly tiny Orla McDonagh, making her professional stage debut, stood out, showing buckets of personality.
The human cast were largely great, but I would be remiss not to mention Amber the dog, playing Sandy, who was undeniably a scene stealer, prompting squeals of joy from the audience, whether young or old, every time she appeared. It felt quite magical to see such a well-trained dog in the flesh, something which the screen version of the show could never fully replicate.
While it does feel a little odd that the story is set at Christmas time (more fitting the last time the show was in Oxford, as the New Theatre's Christmas show), the added festive schmaltz did not detract from uplifting emphasis on postivity which saw the audience leave the theatre in high spirits, particularly impressive for a Monday night. Indeed, as much as the singing and fun appeals to younger audience members, there are wider-ranging, historical jokes and references that give this show a timeless quality for grown-ups to enjoy. For example, one of the most recognisable songs 'You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile' may seem harmless and a bit cheesy on the surface, until it becomes clear that it is part of a toothpaste commercial, adding a thread of cynicism and wryness probably lost on younger audience members.
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