The story of orphan Annie originates from a 1924 comic strip called Little Orphan Annie by Harold Gray, lyricist Martin Charnin approached author Thomas Meehan to write the book of a musical, a wise choice considering his many successes since, with awards for co-writing The Producers, Hairspray, also writing the books for the musicals, Elf, and Young Frankenstein amongst others. Meehan created Annie, using some of the characters from the comic strip, but added to them, using Charles Dickens’ orphan characters as inspiration, which worked well with the musical being set at the time of the Great Depression of 1929. Lyricist Charnin, would then work with composer Charles Strouse, using Meehan’s book as the framework for Annie.
We join Annie (Sharangi Gnanavarathan) and her friends in the orphanage pondering their situation, with Miss Hannigan (Craig Revel-Horwood) being suitably horrid which explains the reason for the little girls pondering. Gnanavarathan, immediately impresses with the song ‘Maybe’, a wonderful rendition, and it is quickly followed by an equally impressive ensemble piece, ‘It’s a Hard Knock Life’, in which the children excelled with their feisty song and excellent, perfectly timed choreography.
The next scene was used to reinforce the struggles of the period, set in the slums of New York in 1933, the homeless community bemoan their situation, some of them previously well-to-do, and now outcast, ruined by the 1929 stock market crash. These first two scenes add the extra layer to the story, the gritty reality that these characters are facing, is tempered with the upbeat songs, helping to lift, what could have been very dark and Dickensian. It is easy to forget when listening to the up-tempo music, that there is a depressing under-current to this story. I should add that the lighting design by Ben Cracknell, sound design by Richard Brooker and costume design by Colin Richmond are on-point in this section of the play, adding another layer for the senses to unravel, it coaxes the imagination into the ghettos of New York.
Turning to the heart-warming part of the story; Annie is fostered by Oliver Warbucks (Alex Bourne), a self-made billionaire who lives alone, but with an army of servants, he is enamoured with Annie, who tames his gruff exterior, and teaches him about kindness and love. There are a couple of scenes involving Daddy Warbucks and Franklin Roosevelt, where David Burrows (Roosevelt) shines in this role, his scene stealing performance is a joy to watch.
Whilst there are some excellent performances, I feel that Craig Revel-Horwood is mis-cast as Miss Hannigan. Yes, Revel-Horwood can sing and dance, but Miss Hannigan is a character with a past, she is a drunk, but something made her bitter and resentful, his portrayal lacks depth, and quickly becomes tired.
There is no doubt however, that the children that performed on press night, are well-disciplined, talented, and they worked very hard to put in such an excellent performance. From beginning to end, they were ‘the orphans of New York’, resplendent, joyful, grubby, and neglected, they had it all, and should be very proud of their achievements.
With a rousing score, and a happy ever after story, this is one of musical theatre’s favourite shows, and it is well worth a watch. Director Nikolai Foster has kept to the traditional storyline, with modern twists coming from set design, and the show remains as charming as ever!
The show runs until the 30th September 2023 at the Manchester Opera House, with Craig Revel-Horwood being substituted by Jodie Prenger on Saturdays.
Follow this link for further information and to book tickets – https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/annie/opera-house-manchester/
Reviewer: Caroline Worswick
Reviewed: 19th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: