By BRUCE DENNILL
Annie / Directed by Nick Winston / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
An enduring favourite can also, quite easily, become a cliché, and with the better-known songs from Annie – Tomorrow and Hard Knock Life in particular regularly being used in various campaigns or sampled for pop, R&B and even rap hits – it’s easy to think that watching the stage musical again will add little or nothing new to your situation.
Happily, an excellent South African cast make such suspicions redundant, helped by a script that – and this often gets forgotten when the focus is on the cute red-haired kids – deals heavily in American politics and in the navigation of difficult economic times. These are not concerns you necessarily want to confront inside a theatre, but when these sober themes are mixed with compassion and a willingness to listen to others (neither of which is at all evident in the contemporary dealings of Zuma, Trump or Clinton), the possibilities suggested are enticing enough to make it possible to set aside the profound naivety required to invest in such ideas.
This is a beautifully mounted production, with huge sets that make the simple locales – a dormitory in an orphanage; the gilt-laden home of Daddy Warbucks; the meeting room of the US Cabinet – both imposing and somehow intimate. The choreography is also a perhaps overlooked triumph, drawing heavily on classic vaudevillian moves that require enormous energy and have the effect of cheering you up as you watch them. The dance sequences here are completed with admirable collective precision, making the musical passages that much more involving and thrilling.
Charon Williams-Ros as Miss Hannigan, the shallow, greedy, cruel mistress of the orphanage in which Annie and her friends are housed, is the stand-out performer. She adds a number of striking tics to the character, including a looping, affected gait that’s hilarious before she even opens her mouth. Neels Clasen, enjoying a great year after another star turn in the sublime I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, cements his leading man status with an excellent take on Daddy Warbucks, who he imbues with all the confidence and swagger of a man who’s retained his billions through the Great Depression and a tenderness towards Annie that is never mushy, but still disarmingly sensitive. Taryn Sudding’s Grace lives up to the character’s name – she’s a calming, elegant presence whose affection for both Annie and Warbucks helps to connect the dots.
Grace as a character is a microcosm of the musical as a whole. She – and it – are not entities that grab you by the lapels and shake you in the way that more epic tales do, but as the character and the narrative develop, they present an ever more satisfying package that leaves you well pleased as you leave the theatre.
Kudos to the youngsters who play the child roles – the performance under review here featured “Team Madison”, with Caitlin Dicker as Annie. In a long piece during which a range of demands are made of them, they handle everything with aplomb and a discipline many older professionals would do well to match.