BEVERLY — For 36 years now, the Tony Award-winning “Annie” has had people believing that anything is possible. After all, this musical paean to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal somehow evolved out of a comic strip — Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” — that lauded Herbert Hoover and the virtues of hard work while targeting Roosevelt, big government, labor unions, communism, corrupt cops and businessmen, and a judicial system that Gray saw as being soft on criminals.
Gray died in 1968, but if he were still around, you can guess which candidate he would be supporting in this year’s presidential election. In economic hard times, however, musical-theater audiences may find it more uplifting to identify with a poor orphan who gets as a father figure not just billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks but a Santa Claus administration promising, as the closing number has it, “A New Deal for Christmas.” There’s nothing like hearing “Tomorrow” to make you think that financial security is just around the corner. And at North Shore Music Theatre, Lauren Weintraub is an Annie you can bank on.
Forgoing the many subsequent story lines Gray devised, the musical’s creators focused on the comic strip’s 1924 beginnings, with Annie incarcerated in a Dickensian orphanage. The good guys include her faithful mutt Sandy (played by rescue dog Mikey), Warbucks (Raymond Jaramillo McLeod), his secretary Grace Farrell (Jessica Tyler Wright), FDR (Howard Pinhasik), and Annie’s fellow orphans. Ranged against them are hateful orphanage supervisor Miss Hannigan (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), her brother Rooster (John Schiappa), and Rooster’s girlfriend, Lily (Shanna Marie Palmer), who have hatched a scheme to have Rooster and Lily pose as Annie’s parents and claim the $50,000 reward Warbucks has offered to find them.
This makes for a black-and-white morality play, but North Shore Music Theatre’s production team provides welcome color. They sketch out the orphanage with a septet of dormitory beds and do wonders to suggest Warbucks’s Fifth Avenue mansion with just a few French Provincial settees. When Annie, Grace, and Warbucks go to a movie, Times Square is festooned with ads for Camels, Lucky Strikes, Squibb dental cream, and Kinsey blended whiskey, plus a Century Theatre marquee promising “The Rose of Stamboul.” Adding to the 1933 flavor is the visual realization of the “Oxydent Hour of Smiles” radio show on which Annie sings. Host Bert Healy (Sean Watkins) even affects a period croon — which is a nice change from all the belting elsewhere. Belting is the style of “Annie,” of course, and, abetted by a healthy degree of amplification, it covers up the musical shortcomings. The show doesn’t have songs so much as production numbers.
But Weintraub is sweet and sincere as Annie, and especially appealing when waltzing with Warbucks; McLeod is a big, lovable lug of a billionaire who can’t figure out where to hang “that painting from Paris” (i.e., the “Mona Lisa”); and Wright is a toothsome blond Grace who, if Annie were permitted to have a mother, would fill the bill. Donovan chews the scenery as Miss Hannigan, having been given little else to chew on; Schiappa’s Rooster and Palmer’s Lily are suitably unctuous. Mikey, who travels around the country playing Sandy, is a thorough professional; it’s too bad that, after his first appearance, he has nothing till his cameo in the finale. And the orphan girls — Elena Carmichael, Heather Buccini, Jessica Lewis, Joanna Rosen, Maggie Budzyna, and Piper Birney — are enthusiastic and spontaneous, a reminder that dreaming about tomorrow doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy today.