A UK-NZ production of the Broadway classic comes to the Civic this week.

The cast and crew of Annie are all smiles when we meet them - and, in turn, we are all bowled over by how good the Kiwi girls playing Annie and her fellow orphans are. They sing with voices that belie their age, dance and act with a chutzpah that avoids sentimentality.

There are further surprises. Look closely at the chorus line for a glimpse of Audrey Laybourne who, at 87, is having a grand old time playing Daddy Warbucks' cook Mrs Pugh.

But Annie is an international production with much of its cast imported from Britain. Producer and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions chief executive James Cundall has been visiting our shores since 1989 when he had another life as an investment banker.

The Yorkshireman has taken a good long look at the potential here for revivals of international blockbuster musicals and decided it's worth bringing three here over the next year. Annie is the first; The Sound of Music follows in September and a yet-to-be-announced production will be staged mid-2015.


"It's all about finding a musical of the right quality you can produce in a way that works for an audience and, if you provide that quality and build a reputation, theatregoers will return," he says. "There are very good local productions here but there's space for what we want to do which is to bring original ones from overseas."

Which is why Cundall figured he could bring Annie from Britain with its main cast and chorus rehearsed there - and, in the final weeks of rehearsals, merge them with New Zealand youngsters (and dogs) playing Annie and the orphans.

"It's been a bit like assembling a grown-up and complicated Lego set where you can't miss any of the pieces out but it's worked, probably because your country is taking on the world and becoming the envy of many others. The kids we found here are a wonderful bunch of very talented performers."

Debuting on Broadway 37 years ago, Annie uses feel-good songs and dance routines to tell the rags-to-riches tale of an orphan girl who's as fiery as her red hair.

In the stage version set during the Great Depression, writer Thomas Meehan and lyricist Martin Charnin emphasised the harshness of the times. In one scene, Annie runs away and finds herself in Hooverville, a shanty-town refuge for the unemployed and homeless trying to help each other because no one else will. Later, she meets American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (played by Frazer Hines), and her optimism spurs his welfare programme, the New Deal.

There's subtext about the importance of pulling together to help one another out and the need for community, something even billionaire Daddy Warbucks (David McAlister) comes to realise. Even the villains of the piece, Miss Hannigan (Su Pollard) and her brother Rooster (MiG Ayesa), simply want a fairer slice of the pie.

Director Alan Cohen says the story resonates today because of the global financial crisis.

"Annie is a metaphor for hope and optimism; it's about how to get out of an economic depression and re-build lives," he says. "There's great resonance with what we've been experiencing around the world and the show, although set in the 1930s, says something about the state of our world and our economy. My interest in being part of this, and I think one of the reasons it is so popular, is not just because it is an iconic musical but because it is so relevant."

It's also a lot of fun, at times comic and determinedly upbeat, but for those of us who were children when Annie first hit the stage, and then the movies and TV, our memories are probably more about the dog and what it would be like to be adopted by a billionaire.

Much of the success of Annie depends on the girl or girls playing the lead role. While Cohen worked in London with the British cast, his assistant Jonny Bowles was in Wellington with the three girls (Amelia Walshe, 11, Ilena Shadbolt, 12, and Zoe Fifield, 13) picked to rotate the role of Annie and the other 20 or so chosen to portray her fellow orphans.

Su Pollard, the much loved star of the TV comedy Hi-de-hi, says it's her job to create a "baddie" the audience loves to hate. "It's not difficult at all for me to be horrid to the girls when I am in character," she says, but "I do reassure them later that it's only acting."

Theatre preview
What: Annie
Where and when: The Civic, June 13 to July 6