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Going to see "Annie" makes you feel good about the world. And I'm not talking about that "The sun'll come out tomorrow" stuff.

I'm talking about all the moppets in the audience, all scrubbed and brushed and turned out in a way I thought had disappeared with the Victorian age. Little girls in velvet ball gowns, little boys in starched shirts and even ties. Honest, everyone looked better than at "The Nutcracker."

It's nice that people saw the show as such an occasion, because "Annie" is worth dressing up for.

Work went into this production, and it shows. The sets look opulent and creative. We see a great Hooverville with billowing dry ice and a good Warbucks mansion, complete with the "Mona Lisa" and "Whistler's Mother." Even the orphanage looks pretty good, with convincing old wooden doors and Manhattanish roofs in the distance.

The talent, happily, lives up to the sets.

We had a surprise Annie on Friday night. Addison Timlin, it was offhandedly announced before the show, would take the title role. Addison is just 9, which helped make her just right for the part. (It's awful when an Annie is just a little too old.)

Our first sight of her, though, came as a shock. She wore her red hair in a neat pageboy. Everyone must have been wondering: Where were the curls? Where were the freckles? And where were the blank circles where her eyes were supposed to be? (OK, now I'm getting too fussy.)

But there's no denying that Addison's voice was perfect -- clear and piercing in that way only kids' voices can be. She sounded so precious and parrotlike that it was tough not to giggle when she ascended in "Maybe" into the high treble. Or when she stood on Franklin Roosevelt's desk and sang "Tomorrow."

Give this kid the job full time, I say. Whoever the usual Annie is can't be any better.

Annie's fellow orphans sang and danced with gusto, with cute, neatly choreographed kicks, cartwheels and even punches, when the occasion demanded it.

And Sandy! "South Pacific" might tell us there is nothing like a dame, but the show-biz truth is there is nothing like a dog. Put a dog on stage and no one will look anywhere else. Baryshnikov could be dancing next to him; it wouldn't matter.

Buster, who played Sandy, didn't look like an Airedale to me. Also, he was extraordinarily subdued. (" 'Arf,' says Sandy," ended the old Orphan Annie song. We never heard a single "Arf" all evening.) But the dog stole the show simply by standing there. As soon as he walked on stage, everyone gasped.

Other characters, though they couldn't quite live up to Buster, distinguished themselves, too.

Our Miss Hannigan, Victoria Oscar, took a part that could have been just a boring meanie and made a real riot out of it. She was blowzy, sarcastic, worn out and not completely dislikable. When Annie chirps that her parents will come back for her, and Miss Hannigan snaps, "They left you here in 1922, and it's 1933 now. They musta got stuck in traffic," even the good-hearted, gussied-up little kids in the audience had to join in the nasty laugh.

David Reynolds makes a whale of a Daddy Warbucks, with disarming nerdiness and a debonair baritone voice. As his love-struck secretary, Marie Barlow embodies the genteel side of the '30s. (Alas, poor FDR wasn't so lucky. With a high voice like Stan Laurel's, he comes off as something of a buffoon.)

People underrate the score of "Annie." The songs are catchy, memorable and good, and they'll entertain even kids who don't get the '30s-era jokes. "It's a Hard-Knock Life" gets people going, "Easy Street" gives us good comic cancan stuff, and "Tomorrow" and "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" sound like true Depression ditties. "N.Y.C." is a song I've rarely heard, and I don't know why. It's glorious in its praise of old New York, and in this production it's accompanied by a beautiful, glitzy tableau.

One sour note: The musicians' union is protesting this show because the orchestra is largely computerized. I have to say that you can tell the difference. There's no mistaking electronic strings for real strings, even in this acoustically imperfect movie theater.

It's too bad that someone felt such cuts were necessary. Daddy Warbucks never would have settled for it.

Rating: ****
Touring Broadway musical
Friday in Shea's Performing Arts Center. Final performance is at 2 p.m. today.

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