When a little orphan hit machine named "Annie" opened in 1977, Americans living in shacks seemed positively Dickensian. Nobody had said anything about federal works projects for decades, much less offered a big wet kiss for the New Deal and sang about it in a sunny musical comedy.

Thirty-five years, one short-lived 1997 revival and a gazillion school productions later, the Depression-era story returns with a sober opening newsreel about breadlines and closed factories. But fear not: When meanie Miss Hannigan swoops down on the girls in the city orphanage to infamously ask, "Did I hear happiness in here?," the answer is still yes, definitely yes.

For all the freight of timeliness, this remains a sweet spot of a family musical, full of adorable, but not sticky-adorable, waifs punching the air with their teeny fists and belting "Tomorrow" over and over until every cynic within earshot might be a believer.

Director James Lapine's handsome yet lovable vision finds the emotional core without losing the cartoon magic. There is a modesty, a humanity within the spectacle that helps the too-large theater feel embracing. (Not embracing, alas, is the muddy sound system.)

As Annie, Lilla Crawford has a self-possessed intelligence -- we'd call it gravitas if that sounded more like fun. She also has lungs to match her big presence, and a cool coiffeur that says Bernadette Peters more than a tot in an orange fright wig. I'll hear no negative words about Katie Finneran, who, unlike her much-admired campier predecessors, makes Miss Hannigan both a cruel clown and a genuinely erotic creature whose thwarted ambitions seem just the slightest bit sad.

Thomas Meehan's book has its simplicity, heart and sly wit intact. The jaunty music by Charles Strouse and knowing lyrics by Martin Charnin remind us about the deceptive charms of "Easy Street" and unrepentant charms of "Little Girls."

Those girls are streetwise but still kids who use the littlest ones as floor mops. Anthony Warlow makes an empathetic Daddy Warbucks, Brynn O'Malley has smarts as his assistant, and Clarke Thorell and J. Elaine Marcos are properly nefarious con artists. David Korins' sets change scenes in the mansion as if turning pages in a handsome book. Not incidentally, Sandy is played by a pooch named Sunny, whose resistance to show-biz cliche is its own special brilliance.


WHAT "Annie"

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WHERE Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, Manhattan

INFO $22-$157; 877-250- 2929; anniethemusical.com

BOTTOM LINE More timely, still sunny