The touring production of Chatrles Strouse, Martin Charnin, and Thomas Meehan’s Annie is the Christmas Show at the New Theatre in Oxford this year and overall it is a good choice for a festive family show. The production is extremely good to look at with evocative yet simple sets, period costumes by Colin Richmond and some dazzling, eye-delighting and energetic choreography by Nick Winston that manages both to be modern and also provocative of the setting, the early days of the Depression in America. The production is also not ashamed of the origins of the material as a comic strip. If you’ve seen the movie versions, the original stage script to which this production reverts has some pretty interesting and major differences – like a scene in a Hooverville; or the tongue-in-cheek way that it is posited that Annie’s song Tomorrow inspires FDR and his cabinet to come up with the New Deal. It also has to be said that, given the banking crash of 2008 and the arguments about austerity versus pump priming in today’s economy, the themes and even some of the events of the show are, sadly, still too relevant.
The casting is strong, with Alex Bourne as an extremely appealing Daddy Warbucks, as central a role in the show as that of Annie. Jodie Prenger has a whale of a time as that caricature harridan Miss Hannigan and delivers her big number in show stopping style; Holly Dale Spencer is a charming Grace Farrell and Johnny Fines and Djalenga Scott chew up the scenery as Rooster and Lily, making a very positive impression as the slightly silly, over-the-top villains. The big songs for the grown ups are all impeccably sung and engagingly acted, the tunes are memorable and the lyrics make their points. These actors know what the songs are about and how to make them advance the development of plot and character. But, sadly, that bring me to the rub! I was able to see, of course, only one of the teams of orphan girls, only one Annie – Isabella Pappas – so I cannot speak for every performance. Also, I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it was because it was the young ladies’ first night in this venue and the cast was getting the measure of the overly-large New Theatre and its very difficult acoustic; and maybe the sound engineers were having trouble with the levels. But the way it struck me is that everyone in the show under about the age of twenty-five is auditioning to be on the X-Factor and being allowed the get away with that pushed, pinched, nasal shouting that passes for singing in so many modern shows. It is a style that is not only irritating in itself but completely unidiomatic for a traditional Broadway musical.
For heaven’s sake – they are miked! You would think that that would allow them to articulate words, consider the nuances and meaning of what they are singing. Or maybe it was because they were all struggling with American accents to sound like New York children? Whatever the reason, I found the way the kids – and especially the Annie of Ms Pappas – very irksome. The kids are clearly very talented and committed. Their dancing and movement were, by and large, superb. Nikoo Saeki as Molly and Scarlett Flannery as Pepper were standouts! Isabella Pappas has all the qualities needed to be a knockout Annie. But the style of delivery in the songs was simply wrong.
I could hardly make out a word they were singing most of the time, the articulation being very garbled; and, frankly, there were a lot of times the kids simply were not quite on the note. I would appeal to the director, Nikolai Foster, and the Musical Director, George Dyer, to do some work with the children to make them stop forcing their voices. It is not only annoying for the audience (which by and large is corrupted by watching the X-Factor, perhaps, and no longer wants them to do nuance?) but it could mean some potentially fine performers ending up with ruined voices by the time they are in their mid-twenties.
At the present moment these kids seem to know nothing about using the diaphragm, breath control, or subtlety of expression. I am not even sure they really understand what they are singing in any given song. Every time the children shut up and the adults were singing, it was much better – though there is a terrible tendency to belt it out there too. This might have been fine for Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Julie Andrews and even Rosalind Russell in the days before everything was miked; but if you listen to original Broadway Cast Recordings, you hear considerable texture and variety in the singing, in both the words and the music, you hear understanding of how to emphasize a vowel or a consonant for effect, and clear articulation of the lyrics. The singers/actors actually are interested in conveying the meaning of their songs, sometimes even layers of meaning and irony, and not just creating effects to make the audience whoop and applaud a sound. The kids in the group that I saw were very energetic and spot on with their dancing routines; and perhaps all George Dyer needs to do is slow down their numbers by a half a beat so that they have a bit more time to think about what they are singing. But certainly they should be better-trained and taught to take advantage of the fact that they have microphones to help them be heard across the footlight. They need to shout less.
That aside, it is a very enjoyable show. There were a lot of children in the audience who were clearly enjoying themselves. This Annie is a very fine outing for a treat at Christmas or any time of the year. But I would love to see a return to more respect for and understanding of the traditional Broadway idiom, a more thoughtful style of song delivery – and a bit more bite for some of the routines that are crying out to be vaudeville pastiche. Carry on, Annie?