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Forget the two turtle doves and those lords a-leaping, and think "leaping lizards" this holiday season as "Annie" arrives at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia.

"Annie" is a 1977 Tony Award-winning hit musical with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin. It's a strong holiday offering, as Annie and her orphan friends celebrate Christmas 1933 in Daddy Warbucks' mansion in the heartwarming conclusion. The evening I attended, I was surrounded by happy kids and parents who seemed entranced by the show.

Only the most hard-hearted theatergoer would not respond to this spunky Depression-era tyke whose parents left her at a New York City orphanage run by nasty Miss Hannigan. Annie escapes to Hooverville, finds a mutt named Sandy and some generous, albeit destitute friends before being found by a policeman. He returns her to the orphanage, where she is soon rescued by billionaire Oliver Warbucks' secretary Grace Farrell, who has been sent to find an orphan to spend Christmas at the mansion.

The story is played out against a catchy score that includes "Hard Knock Life," "Tomorrow," "Hooverville," "NYC," "Easy Street" and "I Don't Need Anything But You."

Doing full justice to this great score is a wonderful cast of high-energy orphans led by Annie, alternately played by Caitlin Deerin (onstage the night I saw the show) and Adalia Jimenez.

Caitlin knows how to belt out a song, dance and deliver her lines well enough to create a lovable Annie.

Toby's production boasts the finest Daddy Warbucks likely to be found in this area - David Bosley-Reynolds, who has played the role five times. He was picked by show creator Charnin (who directed the national tour) to play Warbucks in the national touring company. He toured for 11 months in 2000-2001 and was nominated for a Star Award, the touring company equivalent of the Tony.

Having seen Reynolds' Warbucks at least four times, including in the national tour, I find he continues to improve in the role he has made his own. Reynolds sings such a heartfelt "NYC," extolling the charms of 1930s Manhattan, that it becomes an emotion-charged showstopper.

Another actor who rates star billing in the production is triply talented actor, singer and dancer Tina DeSimone, who is so terrific as the comically nasty Miss Hannigan that she almost steals several scenes from the adorable orphans. The audience wants to join in the chorus when the orphans are forced to repeat, "We love you, Miss Hannigan."

DeSimone's Hannigan so delights in being cruel to her charges that she elevates nastiness to high comedy. Miserably stuck in a thankless job, she joins her brother Rooster (David Frankenberger) and his girlfriend Lilly (Debra Buonaccorsi) in a showstopping stroll down "Easy Street" that becomes inspired theater.

Standout performances are offered by A.K. Brink as Grace Farrell, Andrew Horn as Drake, Jeffrey Shankle as Bert Healy, Jessica Ball, Heather Marie Beck and Elizabeth Rayca as the Boylan Sisters and Alan Hoffman as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Toby's "Annie" is directed by Shawn Kettering, who creates excitement from the opening scene that continues as the action moves along with seamless speed. Mark Minnick's choreography is another plus, as is the work of musical director Douglas Lawler and the small orchestra that manages a big sound.

If you go

Matinee and evening performances of "Annie" are available, and reservations are required. Prices are $48 for adults and $32.50 for children 12 and younger Sunday through Thursday. Friday and Saturday evening prices are a few dollars more, and Sunday matinee brunch prices are $46 for adults and $32.50 for children. Group rates are also available. For information and reservations, call 410-730-8311 from the Columbia area or 410-995-1969 in the Baltimore area.

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