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OOZES ENJOYMENT, FUN AND GENERAL POSITIVITY

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ANNIE
Book by THOMAS MEEHAN
Music by CHARLES STROUSE
Lyrics by MARTIN CHARNIN
Original Production directed by Martin Charning
produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions Limited and David Atkins Enterprises in association with Playhouse Productions

at St James Theatre, Wellington
From 23 May 2014 to 8 Jun 2014

Reviewed by Lucy O'Connor, 25 May 2014


Even before Annie starts, I feel nostalgic thanks to some members of the crowd who too are early. Little girls in dress ups and fairy costumes run about and smile infectiously, creating an air of innocence and fun. They start to rub off on even the un-cluckiest of people and I wish I could join them in frolicking around the St James Theatre. If only societal norms allowed!

Those of us seated early are treated to the sound of the brass band's warm up which is reassuring because if all else fails, the bobbing head of the conductor is enthusiasm enough.

Once the screen lifts I am blown away by the initial spectacle that is the set. In a grim, dirty hall are beds with rustic charm nursing raggedy orphan girls who bicker and tease each other while trying to get to sleep. The smallest orphan needs a hero and who better to fit that bill than determined red headed Annie. She enters with absolute boldness and soothes each girl while dreaming about her own imagined other life.  

Annie (11 year old Ameila Walshe tonight) is something else. Her tiny physical self does nothing to hinder a humungous presence. She plays cheeky, daring, heroine Annie and nails it with honest resilience. These kids have some serious stamina. The orphan girls in their gaggle give off vibes of childhood as they annoy, tease and mimic for reaction.  

I don't need to elaborate about Ms Hannigan (Su Pollard); she is an absolute hoot! From the moment she enters to steer Annie back into the orphanage, the crowd are alert and totally immersed.  In all her desperate, haggard mania, it's tough to dislike her character despite her awful purpose. She has the crowd belly laughing no matter how small her intonation. 

Annie opportunistically takes a chance on escaping with the laundry and as she wanders through New York City streets, I feel like I'm there, wandering unnoticed with her. The chaos, the contrast between classes, and the hustle and bustle are executed so well that I forget I'm in a show. I soon learn there are no small characters in this performance; people who play a homeless New Yorker in one scene hold positions of entitlement, class and worth in the next. They are all excellent and essential. 

We are wowed by the extravagance of Oliver Warbucks' mansion. The man himself, played by David McAlister, has suitable importance but at the end of the day is just a slightly awkward but ever-doting Dad who loves and wants the best for Annie. His secretary, Grace Farrell (Rachel Stanley) is extremely consistent in her role. Every time she speaks, we are filled with positive loveliness and her air of undeniable humble grace. I see what they did there. Her costumes are amazing. From a tartan woolen cape to a small fishtail pleat in her skirt, nothing has been overlooked.

In fact, all costumes are perfectly fit for era. I would be interested to know whether these are replicas or originals as it is extremely difficult to note any discrepancies in all their vintage glory.

Lily St Regis and Rooster, the baddest baddies in town, enter in all their sleazy, greasy slipperiness. Just as I remember! These characters, played by Emily Trebicki and MiG Ayesa, are performed with notable energy showing the remorseless arrogance in their plot to pose as Annie's parents and get away with the money. 

There are so many elements to this production. The set is both hugely grand and intricately detailed. The long table in the Whitehouse is massive in size but features bright gold trim. The hot dog stand has actual hotdogs up for grabs. And I hear the art works have all been hand painted. The props are extremely impressive and prepared with no less importance than the main sets. The scene transitions are seamless.

The vocals and the dance ensembles are just fantastic. It is because these elements are so flawless that I am able to focus on the finer details. The musical arrangements are reminiscent of, and do not stray a beat from, the originals.

The only glitches in tonight's show are an excited four-legged cast member who walks happily away from Annie at a moment that could see him taken back to the pound, and a few microphone issues, neither of which dampen or extract from the performance. Considering how many things needed to gel – the costume changes, the sound, the live music, and what was that thing someone once said about working with kids and animals? – it's amazing everything else comes together as it should.

Over two hours of showcase flies by and as the cast take their last bow and Annie receives a bouquet of roses, I can't help but wish it were starting all over again.   

It is a performance that oozes enjoyment, fun and general positivity. This is a cast who clearly love the heck outta their work. It's the best method of escapism since the invention of magazines and island holidays. I feel ten years old again and possess the same amount of optimism. 
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Kate Ward-Smythe
 Paul Simei-Barton (New Zealand Herald);
 James Wenley (TheatreScenes: The Auckland Theatre Blog);