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Popular musical'Annie' returns to Cambridge

Annie artwork
Annie artwork

One of the world's most beloved shows is coming to Cambridge Arts Theatre from Wednesday to Saturday, January 18-21, courtesy of the Cambridge Operatic Society (CaOS).

Annie rehearsal
Annie rehearsal

Annie, the sad but ultimately heart-warming tale of an 11-year-old orphan searching for her parents in 1930s New York during the Great Depression, had its Broadway premiere in April 1977 and is based on the Harold Gray comic strip, Little Orphan Annie.

The show, with such memorable numbers as Tomorrow and It’s the Hard Knock Life, has spawned numerous productions all over the world – as well as national tours – won seven Tony Awards and has been made into a film three times (in 1982, 1999 and, most recently, in 2014).

An amateur musical theatre company established in 1910, CaOS has staged an annual production at the Arts Theatre for decades, including, in recent years, Sister Act, Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Oliver!.

It’s directed and choreographed by Chris Cuming, a graduate of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, whose previous CaOS credits include the aforementioned Sister Act, Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

Annie rehearsal
Annie rehearsal

The amateur cast, who started rehearsing in October (evenings only), includes two sets of eight young children from Cambridgeshire, who play the children in matron Miss Agatha Hannigan’s orphanage.

Cuming said: “It’s a new interpretation of the classic in as much as if you forget everything to do with Annie – the three films, the stage productions – you see that actually the era is often forgotten.

“The one thing that stood out to me was the fall of President Hoover and the start of President Roosevelt’s reign and the New Deal, and how the whole story revolves around that, and the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. That was something interesting and different.

“The songs are uplifting and brilliant in their own right, and no matter what I do, they’re always going to be there and be brilliant, so for me it was ‘What else can I do to tell this story that maybe audiences haven’t seen before?’

Annie poster
Annie poster

“So in our production we looked at the Depression and the role of class within society at that time; how you may have been upper class or higher middle class but, because of the Wall Street Crash, you actually lost your job and had to take quite desperate measures in order to survive.

“For me, it was really important to look at all of that and to build that level of understanding within the company. The last song of the show, which isn’t in any of the movies, is called A New Deal for Christmas and it looks at what can happen with a little bit of hope; that the world will be fine, in its true American musical/American dream kind of way.”

On the merits of the story, Cuming continued: “I think it’s a story about hope and about how the young generation can bring out that hope. It takes one girl who’s had a very, very tough life – an orphan child who brings hope back to people who don’t have it anymore. Ultimately, it’s a huge love story – it’s all about searching for love. Every character in this play basically wants love.”

Cuming noted a similarity between Annie and, in my view, Jersey Boys, the highly successful musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: “What’s also great about the music is that there are certain songs you forget about and then when you hear them, you go ‘Oh, that’s from Annie! I’d forgotten about that song’.”

This production is performed by non-professional actors, though the director is quick to point out that he in no way views this as a disadvantage. “There’s a sense of joy and love that is unique,” he suggested, “because it’s a hobby, but it’s a very special hobby.

“There’s also an openness that an untrained body has. You can say ‘Let’s try this’ and you’ll find there’s a lot more freedom in the community performer. There’s a real stigma with the term ‘am dram’ and actually I call it ‘community theatre’ because the budget for this show is humongous.

“We’ve got a professional production manager, a professional director/choreographer, it’s a huge lighting rig... The only element that makes it ‘amateur’ is the fact that the performers all have real jobs, but in the industry we say ‘Experience is the one thing that will help you develop as an actor’ and I’m standing in a room with medics, teachers, lawyers, lecturers, people who’ve set up their own business...

“There’s such a mix of skills and knowledges and backgrounds and you can draw on all of that. The first thing I say in the first rehearsal is ‘I’m going to treat you all like I would treat any actor – I’m not going to treat you like a doctor who’s come to do this for a hobby’. I’m really clear on the work ethic.”

Cuming also had nothing but praise for the “incredibly talented” child actors in the show and concluded: “They say never work with children or animals, but I’ve taken both on and it’s been a joy. The young company has so much energy which they’ve brought to the rehearsal room and to the adult company.”


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