Touring production of Annie falls flat despite best efforts of young Toronto actors as plucky orphans

I like the story of Annie, the little orphan girl who is plucked from a sad excuse for an orphanage by a rich benefactor with a big heart. There’s a dog, and a cruel lady who terrorizes the little girls and even an attempted swindle. It’s a classic tale with all the right elements. And, we’ve had so many wonderful productions including a recent movie starring Jamie Foxx as Daddy Warbucks as well as the classic 1982 film with the incomparable Carol Burnett as the alcoholic Miss Hannigan, who runs the orphanage like a sweat shop. There is a lot of history and quite the high water mark to live up to for any subsequent attempt, and unfortunately the latest Mirvish musical production doesn’t get there.

The new musical (a touring production from London’s West End) offers up a tired and uninspired set, and a cast that although possibly talented really couldn’t produce any palpable energy or even basic cohesion, although there were a few bright spots.

On this particular night, Ruby Stokes played Annie (she shares the role with Isobel Khan), and she certainly seized the day. She had a smile from ear to ear, and was bristling with excitement. She was a bit pitchy early on, but gathered herself and was strong throughout the second half of the performance. It was a relief whenever she returned to the stage, for when she left she took all the energy with her.

Veteran actor Alex Bourne was very good as Daddy Warbucks, capable acting, wonderful voice and a certain connection with Annie as well as his secretary Grace Farrell (Carolyn Maitland) that was missing throughout most of the evening.

The production’s big name, Lesley Nichol, best known for her work in the popular TV series Downton Abbey, was okay as the drunken Miss Hannigan. Unlike others in the same role, there is very little humour in this particular Miss Hannigan or in her criminal-minded brother Rooster played by Matthew Hawklsey, who just seems really mean.

n addition to Annie, the other youngsters playing the orphans in the production were very good, certainly vibrant and sassy, but they weren’t given much to work with by way of direction in this production. Even the classic “Hard Knock Life” was a bit dull. They did manage to put together one solid performance during the second act’s “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile,” and even that was preceded by an awful radio-style variety performance that was a real head shaker.

It should be noted that although this is a touring production, the actors portraying the orphans are local and are fantastic. Both Jenna Weir and Jamie MacLean played Matilda in the hit Mirvish musical of the same name. And two of the girls, Sienna Civichino and Markeda McKay, are making their theatrical debuts, and did wonderfully.

Annie really is about the kids, and in this production if anything at all worked, it was them. And thank goodness for that. Oh, and Sandy the dog is cute too, although he had a bit of stage fright.

Annie runs until June 3 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre.

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