Review: Lyric’s tried-but-true ‘Annie’ still pleases

High art it isn’t. Never has been, never will be. But older and wiser (or merely more cynical) theatergoers might as well get over it already, prepare themselves to hear yet another rendition of the schmaltzy anthem “Tomorrow,” and then just let that proverbial sun come out in Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s mostly winsome staging of the popular family musical “Annie.”

Fluidly directed by Ricardo Aponte, the show features young Sarah Charles Lewis as the perpetually optimistic little orphan girl who dreams of a better life during the Depression — and who inspires the same in everyone else around her, from Hooverville hobos to FDR himself.

More often than not, as played by most relatively inexperienced child actresses, the inherent preciousness of the role can feel overly forced and phony, with Annie coming across like a Shirley Temple caricature instead of a real-life, hard-knock kid (this is musical theater, after all).

Lewis, on the other hand, brings a natural charm and a relaxed assurance to the character that are genuinely believable. And when she sings her songs, she does so simply, in the clear and lovely voice of the 9-year-old that she is, when a lot of other Annies tend to belt them out in booming voices beyond their years.

Needless to say, subtlety isn’t a key ingredient in the show’s successful formula. There are certain Dickensian undertones to Annie’s story, but its presentation is pure Busby Berkeley. Based on a 1930s comic strip, “Annie” premiered on Broadway in 1977 and has become one of the most widely produced musicals in the past 35 years.

The saccharine script is by Thomas Meehan, the catchy tunes by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics): “It’s the Hard-Knock Life,” “Maybe,” “N.Y.C.,” “Easy Street,” “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” “I Don’t Need Anything But You” and, of course, “Tomorrow.”

Under the music direction of Bill Newberry, the songs are generally well-delivered by Aponte’s large cast and an 11-member orchestra conducted by the Lyric’s managing artistic director, Brandt Blocker. The smaller character-driven numbers work best. Some of the bigger routines (choreographed by Jennifer Smiles) seem a bit stiff and flat, with the singular exception of “Hard-Knock Life,” which is boisterously performed by Lewis and a chorus of 18 other adorable little orphan girls.

Marcie Millard is an obvious candidate to play Miss Hannigan, the broadly drawn harridan who runs the orphanage from which Annie escapes. She’s over-the-top and chews the scenery, as prescribed, without ever posing much of a legitimate threat. A less predictable casting choice might have been more interesting.

Speaking of which, the accomplished vocalist Kevin Harry portrays Daddy Warbucks, the Wall Street billionaire who falls under Annie’s spell. Given the show’s period setting, that the actor happens to be black doesn’t make logical sense, but, then again, since when do audiences look to “Annie” for realism?

The production values — including imported sets and costumes credited to original Broadway designers Ming Cho Lee and Theoni V. Aldredge, respectively — are on a scale that practically rivals those at the Alliance.

It’s still “Annie” and you’ve probably seen and heard it all before. Just count your blessings that this time around the pros outshine the cons.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.