Annie is a perfect programming choice for Packemin. It’s youthful and calls for a youthful cast, Packemin’s speciality in its amateur/professional split model. It’s accessible – fun without being overtly complex. It’s also something of a cultural institution in Australian musical theatre.
Sydney last saw the show in a big-shot John Frost production in 2012, and in 2000 before that; it’s an indelible part of our landscape because it keeps coming back, reaching out to whoever may listen or care. Annie isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (and is often judged a little too harshly purely because it’s so enjoyed by women and girls), but it matters, and happily, Packemin makes a solid case for another outing with the redheaded orphan.
Luke Joslin, who was in the cast of the mainstage 2012 production, has to come to the helm to direct this show (the first Packemin show not directed by Neil Gooding). The experience of the last go-round must have helped, because Joslin has a good eye for this show. He takes it all down a peg or two; this is Annie unplugged and a little unglued, and it’s all the better for it. It lives right in the middle of the Great Depression, a sort of shabbiness to its overall design. It’s a little desolate, but it’s scrappy in that great can-do way, which is essentially the title character in a nutshell, so it works, especially with the ensemble’s rough-around-the-edges defiance. Packemin really knows how to make their less-experienced cast members shine, and in Annie, it does so by letting them be hardworking and a tad unpolished.
Little Orphan Annie (Stella Barahona) is as plucky as ever, charming and charmingly abrasive. When she escapes the orphanage and awful Miss Hannigan (Amanda Muggleton, clearly having the time of her life), we root for her, and when she gets out to visit with Oliver Warbucks, we’re thrilled for her.
Melody Beck carries the heart of the show in her throat as Grace Farrell, Warbucks’ secretary, bringing with her crystal singing voice a gracious empathy. She softens the hard edges of Rodney Dobson’s likable Warbucks, and Barahona’s Annie, too; they are both infinitely more enjoyable when Beck is on stage to anchor the scene.
The show’s best weapon in its arsenal, though, is its villains. Muggleton runs away with every scene she’s in; she’s dry and quick and larger than life in her evil; a truly fun caricature. Chris Horsey has always had good comic timing and it serves him well as Rooster, a character that comes dangerously close to irritating but remains safely entertaining in Horsey’s droll hands. When these two actors are joined by Aimee Timmins as Lily St Regis, though, it really takes off. It’s hard to take eyes off her – she plays Lily’s vapidity and vainity broadly but sincerely. It’s endearing and eminently watchable.
Packemin shows always feel like a party. All the young kids on stage and in the audience (how nice to hear and see kids on the literal edges of their seats, engaging in live theatre), the happy adult chorus, the relaxed and committed professionals. The family members and Western Sydney community taking it all in from their seats. The smell of popcorn from the Riverside foyer. On opening night, exiting the show, there were smiles all around. Musical comedies, especially childhood favourites like this one, endure because they make people happy – and as we went back into the world, it looked Packemin’s Annie had made everyone happy.