Annie, Aylesbury Waterside ★★★½

Originally published on The Public Reviews

Since opening on Broadway in 1977, Annie has played in several West End runs and spawned countless new productions all over the world. West Yorkshire Playhouse’s touring production uses the strapline “the world’s most popular family musical”, and it’s a piece of hyperbole with which it is hard to argue.

Even so, the relentless optimism of its title character can sometimes be over-interpreted to result in productions which are so saccharine they threaten to put audiences into a diabetic coma faster than one can say “the sun’ll come out tomorrow”. Thankfully, director Nikolai Foster leads a creative team which keeps the sugar at bay, while retaining the spirit and uplifting tone that makes Annie so appealing.

Colin Richmond’s set, comprising large jigsaw pieces of Manhattan maps and furniture which eschew right angles, brings with it echoes of Matilda, that other musical about a young girl who transforms those around her. Its inherently static nature is supplemented by props and subtle lighting cues to denote different story locations, although it is least effective when portraying the opulence of the Warbucks mansion.

With such an abstract set design, it becomes ever more important for the ensemble to portray a sense of place, and a fine job is done here. Dance numbers (under the choreographic eye of Nick Winston) are perhaps the most traditional – and, in a way, the least effective – part of this production’s interpretation, relying on moves evocative of the era to give the whole piece a 1930s air. There are occasional flashes of something special – the Charleston-inspired moves of the hobos that the runaway Annie meets in the Hooverville shanty town sequence, for example – but otherwise the strong dance ensemble is not challenged creatively as much as it is physically.

The music is another matter, with Charles Strouse’s beloved and most recognisable of tunes given a fresh spring in their step by musical director George Dyer’s orchestrations. Nowhere is this more apparent than when Alex Bourne’s Daddy Warbucks leads the ensemble in NYC, a love letter to New York which Dyer imbues with musical references from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to Bernstein’s New York, New York from On The Town without ever overpowering Strouse’s original score.

Bourne is the strongest of the lead performers, his Warbucks a warm, if stand-offish, figure from the outset. His brusque demeanour works well against the relentless sunniness of Annie – and in Madeleine Haynes (in a role shared with Elsie Blake and Anya Evans) the production has cast a star in the making. Possessing a powerful belt that many an adult would kill for, Haynes captures the character’s charm without ever becoming cloying. It’s a tricky line to walk, but under Foster’s direction, this show manages to pull it off.

That’s not to say there are no flaws here. Some of the story elements – most notably, Warbucks’ intentions to adopt Annie in Act I come from nowhere, the emotional bond between the pair only really becoming believable when, with the prospect of losing her to her “real parents” in Act II, their bond is clearly deeper than anything previously shown. And Lesley Joseph struggles to make much of an impact as the drunken, demonic orphanage head Miss Hannigan. Along with an accent that is more Braintree than Brooklyn, Joseph’s musical numbers do not quite meet the vocal and dance quality seen elsewhere, diminishing a rôle whose gruesome awfulness needs to be the sour counterbalance to Annie’s sweetness.

It takes a lot to prevent Annie from putting a smile on one’s face, though – even 2014’s hot mess of a modern-day Hollywood remake with Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis has its moments. And this production remains an uplifting, optimistic musical that warms the heart.

Annie runs at Aylesbury Waterside until March 19, and then continues to tour.