Nikolai Foster’s new Annie at the Piccadilly Theatre is decidedly a post-Matilda production. The feel-good story’s tinged with darker edges, these orphans seem shrewder and cruder than ever before, and there’s a new sense of quirky dystopia on the New York City streets outside Miss Hannigan’s run-down orphanage. Colin Richmond’s set pays obvious tribute to the scenery of that most recent children-centered smash hit, with Annie’s floor-to-ceiling jigsaw puzzle pieces replacing Matilda’s alphabet blocks in much the same design.

There’s no shame in gentle tribute, though, and the subversive energy of Matilda has sent an electrifying surge coursing through the veins of this lovely but overdone 1977 musical (with its surefire score by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin, alongside Thomas Meehan’s witty but somewhat dated book). From the moment the orphan gang, faces caked with dirt, get the brooms out for an angry, pulsating “It’s A Hard Knock Life” that evokes the choreography of Matilda’s “Revolting Children,” it’s clear that this production’s focus will be the rebellious spirits of its title character and her young companions.

And while the top billing on the marquis goes to Miranda Hart, best known for her sitcom Miranda and her recent turn on Call the Midwife, as Miss Hannigan, it’s the ebullient Ruby Stokes as the title character who steals the show. (Stokes rotates in the role with two other Annies, Madeleine Hayes and Lola Moxom.) Stokes opens her performance with an optimistic, magnetic grin as she reassures herself and the other girls that her parents are coming back for her (“Maybe”), and her wise-cracking, wise-beyond-her-years star turn continues from there. She sings marvelously and, on press night, showed herself to be a consummate professional, powering through “Tomorrow” after the winsome Amber (as canine co-star Sandy) threatened to winningly derail the number by vigorously shaking out her fur and repeatedly licking Stokes’ face.

Hart, meanwhile, rides in on a wave of audience devotion and goodwill, more than enough to earn her a hearty standing ovation for her amusingly grumpy (and perpetually soused) Miss Hannigan. But there’s always the sense that this television and comedy star’s awareness that she’s dressed in borrowed musical theatre robes has led to a more tentative performance than necessary. Hart certainly has the pipes for “Little Girls” and “Easy Street,” which she belts out heartily, and her physical comedy is spot-on throughout, but a real character never quite coheres. Dorothy Loudon (who created the role on Broadway) and Carol Burnett (in the original film version) each famously crafted idiosyncratic Hannigans that audiences could love to hate. Hart’s not quite there yet: there’s barely a trace of villainy about her, and, a few dotty ad-libs aside, she’s only generically lovable.

Among the rest of the adult cast, Alex Bourne makes a charismatic and moving Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, the self-important billionaire who opens his home – and, eventually, his heart – to Annie. Jonny Fines and Djalenga Scott ham it up in appropriately broad performances as Rooster and Lily, Miss Hannigan’s accomplices in her plot to punish Annie for her good fortune, with Scott delivering some especially excellent histrionics. As Warbucks’ secretary, Grace Farrell, Holly Dale Spencer initially seems a chirpy caricature but brings real warmth by show’s end. Russell Wilcox’s President Roosevelt comes across as a convincingly honourable, pre-Twitter leader of the free world.

Each Annie has a posse of fellow orphans who rotate through performances with her, and Stokes’ feisty “Team Rockefeller” brilliantly shares the spotlight. Especially wonderful are the adorably plucky Nicole Sabebe as Molly and the gleefully boisterous Kathryn Whetter as Duffy and Charlotte Ross-Gower as Pepper. The full cast receives snazzy support from the nine-piece orchestra, playing George Dyer’s reduced orchestrations, which retain the score’s pep if not always its brassy richness.

Foster makes a rigorous attempt to situate this Annie within its 1933 Great Depression context, replacing the (much-missed) overture with sound-bites from the era (bewilderingly, a radio announcement – in the script and not from the period – later mispronounces the middle name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt). When Annie first escapes the orphanage to the alleys of New York, Foster presents a grim, fantastical urban landscape, and his purposeful reinvention of the usually limp “We’d Like To Thank You, Herbert Hoover,” sung by a group of frustrated homeless victims of the stock market crash, as a sarcastic, sharp mock-production number works well. (Nick Winston’s flashy, crisp choreography serves the show superbly throughout, as does the spirited ensemble.) Most of the political references in that scene fly over the audience’s heads as do a number of jokes that might have been met forty years ago with, at the least, appreciative chuckles rather than total silence.

Once Annie gets off the streets and into Warbucks’ mansion, the production basically swaps its gloomy vision for the city for a glitzy one, investing in the city’s poorest only via President Roosevelt’s brainstorm that leads to America’s New Deal (inspired by Annie’s cheerful reprise of “Tomorrow.”) And if a moment or two in the second act that more closely referenced the opening’s harsh temperament could be nice for clarifying Foster’s concept, Stokes leads the cast through a joyful, bighearted journey. Matilda may have lit a fire under this creative team, but Annie, all by herself, remains a soothing, celebratory treat.

Annie is playing at the Piccadilly Theatre.

Photo: Paul Coltas