I had heard of “little orphan Annie”, but I knew absolutely nothing about her, and nothing about this show, when I took my seat at the ever-reliable New Wimbledon Theatre. So I was astonished when the curtain rose on a dingy dormitory filled with squabbling little girls. It was an orphanage. But how did the actresses manage to look so like actual little girls? Could they really be that diminutive? It was not until the wicked chatelaine who runs the orphanage (played with hilarious villainy by the star of the show, Lesley Joseph) bursts into the dormitory to quell the racket that I realised – they really were little girls!
Yes, the orphans, including Annie herself, are all played by children of the right age. And very good they are too. Was it not W.C. Fields who warned actors against playing alongside children? The latter are likely to steal the show. The actors here also have to compete against a dog – a labradoodle called Sandy. Despite these disadvantages, the grown-ups more than hold their own. The ensemble, and indeed the main cast, are terrific dancers and singers, and they have pretty good music to do it to. Memorable songs include N.Y.C., Easy Street and You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile, the last being featured in a scene which for me encapsulates the spirit of the show. And talking about clothes, I love the way they dressed in the 1930s, as fully on display here.
Indeed, the show is imbrued with the authentic spirit of 1930s America. The sets conjure up New York in the Depression following the Wall Street crash of 1929, with unemployment and homelessness, but still with razzmatazz, and wealth too. The industrialist, Mr Warbucks, who takes Annie under his wing when she gets out of the orphanage, has bucks by the million, but also has a heart. And he has the ear of the President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is bringing a ‘New Deal’ and hope to America. So there is optimism in the air, and America continues doing what America does best – business!
That scene with “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile” captures 1930s America neatly. It takes place in the studio of one of New York’s many radio stations, the programme being sponsored by the makers of a toothpaste called OxyDent. The song itself is an advertising jingle for the toothpaste, sung in close harmony by a trio of ladies who are “all dolled up”, although – being on the radio – the audience can’t see them. Indeed, a ventriloquist with his dummy also takes part. That happened over here too. Older readers might remember Educating Archie on the Light Programme. Mr Warbucks uses this programme to assist in his search for Orphan Annie’s parents, offering a reward, but ends up inadvertently advertising OxyDent. The whole thing is hilarious.
I went to the theatre last night to see a musical which I knew nothing about, and came away thinking it was one of the best musicals I’ve seen. Not a bad deal – or a New Deal !