Optimistic `Annie' has message relevant today


November 15, 2001|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Last year, when Toby Orenstein planned this season's roster for her Columbia dinner theater, she never imagined that the Depression-era musical Annie would be pertinent to 2001. But then again, that was before Sept. 11, before themes of hope and love and value of people over materialism seemed as important as they do now.

"It's a charming play filled with heartfelt messages that are so appropriate for this time," said Orenstein, founder and director of Toby's Dinner Theatre. "There was unrest in the world. When we ran it through for the first time at the Monday night rehearsal, I heard the messages and said, `This is so timely.'"

Annie opens Nov. 22 at Toby's and will run through February. Based on the long-running comic strip and set in 1934 New York, Annie follows the adventures of the title character -- a red-haired, spunky young girl living in a Dickensian orphanage until she is adopted by billionaire Daddy Warbucks, who tries to help her find her parents.

Among the "messages" in a show that celebrates optimism and determination, said Orenstein, is the stirring "Tomorrow" with lyrics that promise: "The sun will come out tomorrow. So you got to hang on till tomorrow, come what may." Another message, Orenstein said, is how Annie helps the money-driven Warbucks realize how important people are.

This is the 22-year-old dinner theater's first presentation of the popular show, which debuted on Broadway in 1977. Orenstein opted not to present Annie years ago because every other local theater company was putting it on. "This is my year to do old Broadway shows that I never did, like Damn Yankees and Carousel," she said. "Everybody enjoys Annie. It lasts through time. It has wonderful music, great characters."

The cast includes Mo Jo, a mutt who plays Annie's mutt Sandy, and David Reynolds as the bald Daddy Warbucks. Reynolds just ended a one-year national tour of Annie under the direction of Martin Charnin, the lyricist of Annie and director of the original Broadway production.

"David is a strong singer and actor, and even looks like Daddy Warbucks," Orenstein said. "He auditioned with a shaved head."

The title role is divided between two young actresses, Samantha "Sammi" Glass of Ellicott City and Gabriella De Luca of Montgomery County.

Whenever Orenstein works with children, she double-casts the production. In fact, two sets of children, ages 4 to 12, are also cast as the six orphans. "I love working with kids," Orenstein said. "They're trusting and focused."

But rehearsals take longer because of the two casts. "One cast watches while the other rehearses," Orenstein said.

To further ease the load of her young casts, she is also alternating performances of Annie with Forever Plaid, a 1950s-era musical. "It's hard to do so many performances when they're in school because we don't finish until 11 at night," Orenstein said.

Despite the hard-knock life of rigorous rehearsals, Sammi landed on the honor roll at Ellicott Mills Middle School, where she is in sixth grade.

"I will miss a little of school but will have a chance to make it up," the 11-year-old said.

But Sammi is no novice. She has worked with Orenstein since she was 7, including two years in the Young Columbians, a performing group of Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts founded by Orenstein. Sammi's mother, Denise, had also performed as a teen-ager in the Young Columbians.

Last month, Sammi sang two solos with the Young Columbians for "Out of the Ruins: An Artistic Response to Tragedy" at the Mount Ida Visitors Center in Ellicott City.

She also performed in State Fair, It's A Wonderful Life and The King and I at Toby's, and as young Kim for the national tour of Showboat at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and at the Mechanic Theater in Baltimore.

While Annie is her first major role, Sammi recently played the part for the Howard County Summer Theatre. The blond-haired youngster has dyed her hair red. "It felt a little weird," she said.

But what she likes best about Annie is working with the "orphans." That includes younger sister, Katelyn, a third-grader at Worthington Elementary School. "All of the people are fun, but the kids are the best," Sammi said.

Although she owns a 1-year-old cockapoo puppy, Sammi insists that any comparisons to her character stop there. "Annie's more out there than I am," she said.

Toby's Dinner Theatre at 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia will present "Annie" Nov. 22 through Nov. 30 (except Nov. 26), and on selected nights and matinees December through February. Ticket prices range from $21.50 to $39. Information: 410-730-8311.

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