Big Heart, Strings Showing: ANNIE

Photo by Paul Lyden, Jacquelyn Piro Donovan and Lauren Weintraub.

Annie, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charmin, book by Thomas Meehan, North Shore Music Theatre, 7/17/12- 7/29/12,

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Beverly, MA) Sometimes, when you shine a light on a worn-out plotline by staging a good production, you breathe new life into the script.  Other times, a strong production’s focus can make a threadbare script fall to pieces. 

The North Shore Theatre’s well-done production of Annie generates both outcomes.  At times, fine performances add depth to the script and score of Thomas Meehan and Charles Strouse.  Other times, the actors’ efforts only succeed in poking holes in the flimsy tale of our favorite iris-less heroine.  Despite the script’s many flaws, if you are looking for family fare that won’t traumatize your youngest nor bore your oldest, you can’t go wrong here.

You know the plot.  A streetwise Pollyanna of a waif is saved from a Dickensesque existence by an industrialist; said waif melts said industrialist’s heart of iron ore into one of gold, and she then manages to shape FDR’s domestic policy with a plucky song.  It’s a bit much when you look at the synopsis, but the creaky script works in an unmistakably American way.

The cast admirably commits to the rules of engagement in this chestnut of a script, and even the weaker performances are so amiable that it is hard to keep from grinning all night.  In this production, get ready to root for the bad guys, as Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (Miss Hannigan) has theatergoers eating out of the palm of her hand as an orphanage boss losing her marbles.  By carefully basing her performance in equal parts reality and absurdity, Donovan forges a memorable character of what could have been a caricature.  Miss Hannigan gains our sympathy with each twitch and squeal of anguish, and parents in the audience might squirm as they recognize some of the villain’s darkest thoughts as being too uncomfortably close to their own.  The play’s best moments arrive when she and her co-conspirators, Rooster (John Schiappa) and Lily (Shanna Marie Palmer), infuse a “99 percent” populist energy to their joyful show-stopping number, “Easy Street”.

Amiability is a bit too contagious in this production, as director James Brennan, perhaps wisely, chooses to underplay conflict to keep the kids in the aisles engaged.  13-year old Lauren Weintraub (Annie) displays remarkable wit and poise, and she has a voice that almost appears auto-tuned in its nuanced perfection, but Brennan fails to help her sell Annie’s toughness in the earliest scenes.  Raymond Jaramillo Mcleod (Oliver Warbucks) is fun to watch and uses his booming voice to great effect, but his character starts off lacking edge and focus, which mutes the payoff of Daddy Warbucks’ transformation into a lovable bear.  Even Schiappa makes Rooster so much fun to be around that I too readily believe his kidnapping disguise as a bumbling Canadian farmhand more than his underlying character as a no-good cutthroat.

Brennan and musical director Nick DeGregorio do a nice job shaping a world that would fit well for a radio soap opera, with DeGregorio especially creating a warmly nostalgic sound that appears breezy and effortless.  But their efforts have the effect of showing that the script is trying to do too much when it tries to dive into the American psyche during the Great Depression.  Scenes with hobos and White House Cabinet members discussing the root weaknesses of capitalism tend to confuse Annie’s motivations.  She rubs shoulders with the destitute and then ends up being a member of the trickle-down 1 percenters as a reward; this is a plot?  Also, it seems our favorite mutt Sandy (played by rescue mutt Mikey – adopt from a shelter, please) gets lost during most of the play only to reappear as a Christmas gift, thus exposing that he is nothing but a shamelessly-cute plot device.

But really, we don’t come to see Annie to get grounded characters who remind us about the nuanced grayness of life.  We come to feel our hearts swell, and this production doesn’t disappoint.  But we warned; it may leave you with a saccharine hangover…tomorrow.


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