A crowd of people dressed in rags and whatever they can find to weather the city winter gather. They pull tight amongst themselves and share whatever warm food they can find.
They speak and commiserate in equal misery. They sneer and jeer and they sing sarcastic plaudits to the former president for his part in driving the country off a fiscal cliff, into poverty and economic wreckage.
A little orphan girl tries to cheer them up. Before anything can be done, however, the police crack down tight. This city must not tolerate its own uglier underbelly.
An account of the Occupy Wall Street movement from last year?
No. Instead the scene is one of the musical numbers from the legendary Broadway musical Annie, which sailed onto our shores two Tuesdays ago for a four-week run at the Marine Bay Sands Grand Theatre.
A quick run-down of the story, for the uninitiated: adapted from a comic strip by Harold Gray, the story traces the rags-to-riches journey of a young orphan girl (Ella Crossland in the titular role, together with Charlie Hall & Katie Howard) through New York City as she searches for her long lost parents.
The story takes a fairytale twist when billionaire Oliver Warbucks (David McAlister) extends an invitation to Annie to stay over at his mansion for Christmas, to the envy of the army of adorable orphans at the orphanage as well as their loathable alcoholic guardian, Miss Hannigan (Su Pollard).
The cast is rounded off by a devilish gleeful villain tag-team in the form of Miss Hannigan’s brother, Rooster (played by Michael Watson with relish) and his lover Lily as they plot to steal from Daddy Warbucks by impersonating Annie’s parents.
Of course, those who are only familiar with the 1982 film adaptation might find the strains of sly sociopolitical commentary alien to the story.
Long before the musical was transferred to celluloid, however, the original comic strip by Gray was already documenting the hardships of Depression-era America, expressing his oft-controversial political opinions in colourful daily episodes.
The 1977 Broadway interpretation turned up the glamour and glitz and played down the political commentary, though the original sardonic voice of Harold Gray lingers on as a throbbing undercurrent that adds an earthy grit to the elaborate sets and jazz hands.
It’s precisely this unlikely marriage of New Deal optimism and Depression-era blues that renders the musical especially poignant and fitting for these troubled times, says director and choreographer Roger Hannah.
“The reasons, rhymes and emotions are still very much relevant—it’s just the date’s that’s changed,” says the Englishman.
“Just because the show is set in the 1930s, that doesn’t mean the show isn’t applicable to our times.
“Maybe you don’t see it so much in Singapore, but in the UK now, people have been losing their jobs and their homes, and they’re looking for something to make them smile, which is why the show always got a special reaction from the audience when we performed it last year. That’s what Annie speaks to in us—she reminds us to smile even when we’re gloomy. Perhaps every government should have an Annie.”
Not that the show’s subtle exploration of economic themes was the main thing on anybody’s minds at the musical’s premiere two weeks ago. With an audience consisting mainly of families and celebrities, the dominant buzz was more Kids Central and less Keynesian economics as the talented cast plowed through the songs with spirit and aplomb. A supporting cast of orphans made up of local girls kicked off the proceedings with one of the musical’s better known numbers, Hard Knock Life, with the impossibly cute 6-year-old Chloe Choo nearly stealing the show.
Pollard’s Ms Hannigan provided a believable if campy oppressor for the orphans, but it was Michael Watson’s Rooster that added genuine malice to the show with his mustache-twiddling, hip thrusting antics. Elsewhere, David McAlister’s Daddy Warbucks was a benevolent, wish-fulfilling father figure, even if his voice did on occasion sound slightly uncomfortable with itself. (Overheard earlier on during the press conference was an expression of fondness for Singapore’s spicy food—the culprit, perhaps.)
The star that shone the brightest, though, was Ella Crossland’s Annie, in an interpretation that was refreshingly child-like and cheeky without once coming across as precocious. Crossland hit all the right notes with both her singing and her acting, and in a musical that stretched the limits of belief with its plot at times, she added a much needed humanity and vulnerability to the proceedings.—a product, perhaps, of being unspoiled by experience, this being her first time playing a leading role in a production of this scale.
It’s a harder role than most might expect. After all, as Hannah points out, the actresses who play Annie have to carry the production for the first fifteen minutes without any adult counterpart to play off—and they have to do it while dancing and navigating the subtle vocal nuances of songs like Tomorrow and Hard Knock Life.
The real challenge, however, is less a matter of performance and more a matter of mentality.
“Beyond being able to carry the first fifteen minutes, the child has to have the right mentality about things,” says Hannah.
“They have to have the right sort of…they have to be like an Annie. t’d be pointless to have a miserable child, it has to have that same outlook.”
Crossland acknowledges the compliment, but points out that she resembles the character more in spirit than in life.
“I’ve never gone through any of the things she’s gone through before, so I can’t really say we’re the same,” says Crossland, with a measured perspective beyond her ten years.
“She’s a very plucky character though, and that’s where we’re similar. I’m a very happy person and so is she.”
That’s the pervasive mood that lingers on long after the musical has finished—a certain childlike optimism that defies the working class doom, defies adult gloom and all of our hardened cynicism.
It’s a hard knock life, sure. But then again tomorrow is only a day away.
(Samuel C Wee)
Pictures by Diana Rahim