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Review: Foster’s Annie is a shortsighted attempt to ride Matilda’s coattails

Isobel Khan stars in Annie, onstage at Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Courtesy of Mirvish Productions

  • Annie
  • Book by: Thomas Meehan
  • Music by: Charles Strouse
  • Lyrics by: Martin Charnin
  • Directed by: Nikolai Foster
  • Starring: Isobel Khan, Lesley Nicol
  • At the Ed Mirvish in Toronto

rating


There’s a great production of an American musical based on a comic and starring a bunch of adorable child performers on right now in Toronto.

But if you can’t get a ticket to Fun Home, the brilliant and moving adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel currently running at the CAA Theatre, then there’s also Annie over at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

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Mirvish Productions has brought in a hammy British production of the hokey 1977 musical based on Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie comic strip to fill a gap in the season left when a new musical based on Muriel’s Wedding had to delay its Toronto engagement.

While there’s a group of young local performers filling out the hard-knock orphanage where little, red-haired Annie is stuck when the show begins, the adult performers are all visiting from overseas.

Miss Hannigan is played by Lesley Nicol, Mrs. Patmore on Downton Abbey, who fans of that show will enjoy getting the chance to see put down the cookware and do some chewing (of the scenery) as the alcoholic caretaker of an orphanage in Depression-era New York City.

A couple of lesser-known West End veterans play Daddy Warbucks and his assistant Grace – who take in Annie for two weeks over Christmas and help her to try to find her parents. Alex Bourne is soulful as the benevolent bald billionaire, while Carolyn Maitland brings the requisite grace to the role of Grace; the two have romantic chemistry, too, foregrounded here by the director, you suspect, to take any creepiness out of the plot.

There are two young British performers alternating as Annie – and I saw Isobel Khan, who has a lovely voice, but who felt a little disconnected from her environment and, for all her pluckiness, left my heartstrings unplucked.

I blame the girl’s wig maker and dialect coach – there’s enough for a kid to have to do in the central role in this show without have to battle unwieldy red locks and an old-timey American accent.

It’s strange that Mirvish has recently taken to importing British productions of musicals set in the United States. Last season, audiences had to ignore wonky accents in The Bodyguard, but Annie’s are even less forgivable given the show’s parade of 1930s Americana.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt is a secondary character, for example – but anyone listening to a fireside chat by actor Stephen McGlynn in the role might very well start a birther movement.

It’s not only the accents: There’s a stereotypical approach to acting “American” that seems to fly on the West End, but makes a North America audience cringe. It saturates this production with its noo yoik beat cops and sailors and ingenues arriving from out of town. NYC, a beautiful number that Warbucks and Annie sing as they wander around and marvel at Manhattan, makes you wonder if anyone on the creative team has ever been there – the whole thing seeming to be set in the Holland tunnel.

Despite the dated patter scripted by Thomas Meehan and cheesy lyrics by Martin Charnin, Annie does have undeniably great songs by Charles Strouse – not just NYC, but Tomorrow and It’s The Hard Knock Life and Easy Street, sung by Miss Hannigan and her villainous sidekicks, Rooster (Matthew Hawksley), and his scheming girlfriend Lily (Kate Somerset How).

And the musical did find a new wind not long ago – when its shameless sun-will-come-out-tomorrow optimism seemed a good fit with an America that seemed to believe in hope and change for a while. Director James Lapine revived Annie on Broadway in 2012 and, two years later, Jay-Z produced a film remake for the Obama era, with a black Annie and Warbucks.

From its design by Colin Richmond, which includes a proscenium arch made out of puzzle pieces, and its jerky amped-up choreography by Nick Winston, this West End-born production of Annie, however, seem to be uninterested in what the show might say about the United States now and mostly fuelled by a desire to capitalize on the success of a more recent, British hit that starred kids: Matilda: The Musical.

That’s a clear sign that director Nikolai Foster gets the material wrong. Matilda was an irony filled show, anti-populist and suspicious of treating children as more important than they are. Annie, meanwhile, has a Trump-like tycoon as its hero and implies that the reforms and public works projects of the New Deal were inspired by a singing orphan. If that world can be made believable and entertaining in our current times, it only is intermittently here.

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