Maureen Brennan would like us to believe she was born under a lucky star: Few actresses reach Broadway at the age of 21, if ever. But to see her now with Donny Osmond in "Little Johnny Jones" at the Kennedy Center, it looks like the lessons, the discipline, the amateur productions and the summer stock paid off.

Brennan, 29, was raised in Alexandria and gave her first performances as a teen-ager in Washington's American Light Opera Company (ALOC) and the Little Theatre of Alexandria.

"My mother took me to my first audition, somewhat apprehensively," she said, smiling. "I knew I wanted to be an actress. She knew I didn't understand much about the frustrations and disappointments that lay ahead of me. To our surprise, I won a part as an understudy in ALOC's 'The Sound of Music,' and we both were hooked!"

Brennan, who uses her mother's maiden name as her stage name, is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George Rita of the Waynewood subdivision in Alexandria. The eldest of six children, she graduated from St. Mary's Academy in Alexandria and attended Dumbarton College before transferring to the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

In 1973, Brennan got her first big break. While attending the conservatory, she learned that Hal Prince was searching for someone to play Cunegonde in the musical revival of "Candide." Along with her resume and photo, Brennan enclosed a note saying, "Please do not ask me to come unless you're really interested. It's very expensive to fly from Ohio to New York."

She never went back to school after getting the part.

Brennan's family says "unassuming" is a good way to describe her, although she's won a Theater Desk Award and a Tony nomination for her role in "Candide." "Before 'Candide,' I'd never even been inside a New York theater and here I was a leading lady," she said. "It was everything I had ever wished for."

But "starting on top can be disquieting," she said. "You feel like people expect so much and you worry you will let them down."

After three years in "Candide," Brennan went directly to a season at the Good Steed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., where she appeared in "Dearest Enemy" and in "Going Up." Her role as Madeline Manners in "Going Up" took her back to Broadway and favorable reviews.

She has starred on Broadway with Richard Kiley in "Knickerbocker Holiday" and has appeared Off-Broadway and in regional theaters across the country, including two productions as part of the Smithsonian's Performing Arts series here in Washington.

An audition for "Little Johnny Jones," a revival of the George M. Cohan musical written in 1904, took her back to the Good Steed Opera House in 1980. She won the part of Goldie Gates, a bubbly, charming copper heiress in love with Johnny Jones, a jockey. The production, then starring Tommy Hulce, moved to Philadelphia. By last April, with David Cassidy in the lead, the play visited San Diego, Los Angeles, Denver, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas.

"The part has been great fun all along, but acting now with Donny Osmond is an even greater thrill." In the play, Brennan disguises herself alternately as a French coquette, an English earl and a newspaper boy.

Where does she go from here? "Little Johnny Jones" is bound for Broadway, so for the near future the answers are easy.

But if you ask her what really matters to her, she answers, "Learning that success and failure are both imposters. We must listen to the voice inside us and do what we dare to dream."