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Toby's Dinner Theatre Columbia - ARCHIVE
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Sweeney Todd
September 5 - November 8, 2009
Tuesday - Saturday at 8:15 pm
Sunday at 7:15 pm
Wednesday and Sunday at 12:30 pm
Reviewed October 21 by Brad Hathaway

A solid and satisfying staging of a musical thriller of blood vengeance in eighteenth-century London
Running time 2:50 - one intermission
Tickets $32 - $51
Click here to buy the CD
 


Here's a gem of a production that escaped us in the flood of openings in September. It only has a few weeks still to run but we're glad to be able to add it to the reviews we're currently running. The mere idea of mounting a murderous blood-bath of a musical in a dinner theater is unusual enough to draw your attention. The fact is that the production turns out to be very well mounted with solid staging (including a nifty solution to the problem of getting the accumulating pile of dead bodies off the stage) and an enveloping sound that does justice to Stephen Sondheim's legendarily challenging score even when not all the voices can reach all notes without an obvious strain here and there. Sondheim, and his co-author Hugh Wheeler, manage to provide nearly three hours of highly entertaining, entirely engrossing material and the cast under Toby Orenstein's superb direction in the round deliver most of its thrills intact.

Storyline: An acknowledged masterwork of the musical theater, this "musical thriller" based on a nineteenth-century legend is a unique mixture of melodrama, macabre humor and psychological insight telling the story of a London barber who seeks vengeance for injustices done to him, his wife and their daughter. The revenge goes awry, driving him farther and farther from sanity as he teams up with the ditsy proprietress of a pie shop who sees in the remains of his victims fresh supplies for her meat pies.

The remarkable career of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim includes a number of superb and distinctive works, perhaps none quite as unique as this conversion of a melodrama of a play based on a persistent urban legend.  (You can actually visit Sweeney Todd's barber shop in Fleet Street in London even though there's no agreement that he really existed.)  Sondheim's score is nearly operatic in scope, complexity and range although it sounds more Broadway than The Met. It has, however, been produced in opera houses around the world. Its 1973 Broadway staging makes practically everyone's list of "Best Broadway Musicals of All Time" - depending, of course, on how long the list is.  With an ever-engrossing combination of love stories, horror stories, comedy and penetrating character study, its original production, directed by Harold Prince, ran less than a year but became known as a classic. It was revived twice on Broadway (one being the first of John Doyle's strange orchestra-less productions with the actors playing musical instruments) and was the opening production in the legendary Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center in 2002. It was the first musical that Signature Theatre produced - their 1991 production launched them on the road to national recognition as a musical theater company.

Russell Sunday makes Todd a looming and strangely stilted outsider even in the dark and dank London. He is at his absolute best with the Act I conclusion of "Epiphany" and, with the superb Lynne R. Sigler, in the dementedly humorous "A Little Priest."  He really does let us see Sweeney's epiphany as one more blow drives him over the edge from a seeker of revenge on those who had wronged him to a serial killer bent on much wider spread crimes.  In the second act he is chillingly businesslike as he dispatches victim after victim and it is only with the final blow to both his mentality and his mortality that the role seems to escape him briefly. Sigler brings humor, a unique brand of common sense and a touch of sexiness to the demented pie maker. Jessica Ball, who was so good in Titanic two years ago and was a luminous Laurie in the last show here at Toby's, Oklahoma!, is again in fine voice. Lawrence B. Munsey struts superbly as Todd's competing barber, although he has to go to a weak falsetto for some of the high notes, as does Jeffrey Shankle who is otherwise very good as the sailor who falls in love with Todd's daughter. Andrew Horn's work on the Parlour Songs is particularly notable and David Bosley-Reynolds handles most of the role of the evil judge even if his big number has been cut.

Drew Dedrick's sound design fills the hall with the score with a surround-sounding approach that is just right for this piece. He did some similar magic with Titanic two years ago. That production also benefited from the work of Music Director Christopher Youstra and again Youstra deserves kudos for the quality of the vocal work of the ensemble. Often, Music Directors are judged on the basis of the work of the orchestra - and on that basis he would deserve praise here. But when a music director also pulls the best possible vocal work from the full cast, it should be noted.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler from an adaptation by Christopher Bond. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Amy Kaplan (properties) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Vickie S. Johnson (stage manager). Cast: Jessica Lauren Ball, Heather Marie Beck, April Blandin, Debra Buonaccorsi, Conrad Buck, Melynda Burdette, Erin Donovan, Maria Egler, Byron Fenstermaker, Jamison Foreman, David Frankenberger, Jr., Crystal Freeman, Adam Grabau, Jeffrey Higgins, Alan Hoffman, Andrew Horn, Lawrence B. Munsey, David Bosley-Reynolds, Jeffrey Shankle, Lynne R. Sigler, Dan Sonntag, Russell Sunday.

 


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Oklahoma!
June 11 - August 30, 2009
Tuesday - Saturday at 8:15 pm
Sunday at 7:15 pm
Wednesday and Sunday at 12:30 pm
Buffet begins two hours before curtain
Reviewed June 19 by Brad Hathaway

Solid staging, fine singing and spirited dancing
Running time 2:40 - one intermission
Tickets $33 - $51
Click here to buy the CD


The first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration is a show every lover of musical theater should revisit from time to time. In between visits, memory starts to play funny tricks, and you tend to remember just the sweet simplicity, the lovely score, the charming humor, the innocent bloom of young love and the attachment to the land so celebrated in the title song. All those things are there in abundance, but there's more depth, more seriousness and more pure drama than you may remember. Oklahoma! is not just a show about a young woman's difficulty picking between a charming young cowboy and a hired hand with a disturbing collection of pin ups on his bunk house room. This humongous hit of the 1940s was a phenomenon because it accomplished such a complete blending of simple charm and darker complications as to seem completely seamless. Director/choreographer Mark Minnick keeps most of those elements in balance and draws satisfying performances from a talented cast. However, the small live orchestra fails to match the quality or charm of the other elements.

Storyline: In the first decade of the twentieth century, as the people of the Oklahoma Territory look forward to statehood, two young women have man trouble. There's Laurey, who is being courted by charming young cowboy called Curly when Jud, a surly hired hand, enters the equation. The other is Ado Annie, who "Cain't Say No!" to her boyfriend who is just back from Kansas City, but her father has already used his shotgun to convince a traveling peddler to marry her. Things take a fatal turn when Jud and Curly compete for Laurey's box lunch at the sociable.

The American musical had been evolving toward a more integrated, serious form of entertainment for decades before Rodgers and Hammerstein crafted this confection with a solid story told in part by dialogue, part by song and part by dance. It struck a chord in the hearts of a war-weary nation when it opened in 1943. Oscar Hammerstein II, who had been a major force in developing the form for twenty years, but who hadn't had a hit in nearly a decade, teamed with Richard Rodgers, who had just about had it with the unreliability and difficulty of working with his long-time partner Lorenz Hart. Oklahoma! was a hit of enormous proportions, running for over five years on Broadway, hitting big again in London, becoming a Cinemascope 35 and Todd-AO 70 movie and being revived on Broadway four times. It was the start of a new partnership which, over the next sixteen years, added Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music to the list of classic American musicals.

The show is famous for beginning not with a chorus line of pretty girls, but with a single male voice off stage singing "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'." Here that voice is Jake Odmark's. He has just the right blend of swagger and charm as Curly. "Many a New Day," one of the finest mergers of words and music in theater history, is given a charmingly light delivery by Jessica Lauren Ball, who is as "purty" a Laurey as any Curly would want. Adam Grabau, who was so good as the demented Nazi in Toby's The Producers, comes up with a strong performance at the other end of the emotional spectrum as the troubled hired hand who nurses grudges in his "Lonely Room." The secondary story of Ado Annie isn't given short shrift in its casting. Annie is Elizabeth Rayca, displaying skill as a singing comedienne. Jeffrey Shankle brings energy to his singing and dancing as her beaux back from Kansas City (where "everything is up to date") while Vishal Vaidya lands most of the laughs reserved for the Persian peddler.

A significant element of any production of the show has to be the execution of the dream dance which ends the first act. Rachel Schur is as graceful as one could want as the "Dream Laurey." Surprisingly, the orchestra seems to rise to the minimum requirements for this exclusively instrumental segment. It is during the vocal work that the orchestra's weakness and thinness becomes a distraction, drawing attention away from the glories of the score.

Music by Richard Rodgers. Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick. Musical direction by Reenie Codelka. Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Samn Huffer (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Drew Dedrick and Terrence Sweeney (stage managers). Cast: MaryLee Adams, Frank Anthony, Trish Baker, Jessica Lauren Ball, Parker Drown, Joel Adam Gerlach, Adam Grabau, Andrew Horn, Chris Jehnert, Shawn Kettering, Katie Keyser, Jordan Klein, Jen Kohlhafer, Julia Lancione, Darren McDonnell, Jake Odmark, Elizabeth Rayca, Rachel Schur, Jeffrey Shankle, Christen Svangos, Susan Thornton, Vishal Vaidya, Kate Williams, Victoria Winter.


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 August 28 - November 23, 2008
The Producers
Reviewed September 13 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 3:00 - one twenty-five minute intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for quite "a gay romp"
Click here to buy the CD


Some seven years ago, Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan, Susan Stroman and a host of the best talents in New York took Broadway by storm at a time when everyone desperately needed a laugh. With the mayor of New York imploring people to return to Broadway after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the one house on the Great White Way where it was nearly impossible to get a ticket was the St. James where The Producers packed every seat with people who, based on reviews and word of mouth, expected the funniest evening of their lives - and got what they expected. Rarely has a show been more perfectly positioned in history. The comic relief triggered a nearly-simultaneous release of the tensions of the time for the 1,623 patrons in the audience each night. It became a therapeutic bonding that no one who experienced it can ever forget. How, then, do you make that show work in a different time and place? Director Chris Suchan keeps the pace swift and the energy high and gets high-humor performances from Adam Grabau as a demented Nazi, Lawrence B. Munsey as a cross-dressing director, Elizabeth Rayca as the sex symbol to end all sex symbols, and, most notably, Jeffrey Shankle, who finds a way to make a nebbish suave and does so with a smooth tenor voice. Only in the case of David Bosley-Reynolds as the scheming producer does the evening bog down at times. He has been more satisfying in more touching roles in the past, but has difficulty with the light comedy here. Still, when it comes to his big show-synopsizing scene in Act II, his hard work finally pays off with a bang.

Storyline: The Broadway-style musical based on Mel Brook’s classic comedy film about a Broadway producer who teams up with his nebbish accountant to produce a flop in order to pocket the investments of little old ladies in a show that has no profit. But their Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden is a surprise hit, exposing their fraud.

The production here at Toby's is a theater-in-the-round approximation of the original, which may not be so surprising given that the director/choreographer is making his directoral debut after a career performing which included a stint in the national tour of, you guessed it, The Producers. Suchin avoids giving any impression that he is trying to change the staging simply to "make the piece his own." Instead, he takes the super solid property developed by its original creative team of Brooks, Meehan and Stroman and converts it to this four-sided stage. He doesn't try to replace or change the avalanche of sight gags and gimmicks that Stroman used to fill every nook and cranny of the evening with an entertaining touch. Rather, he makes most of them work well and drops those that won't fit in the round. About the only addition is a good idea that, due to the low ceiling of the theater, doesn't work quite as well as it might - he installs an overhead video camera to capture the final moments of the super-spectacle number "Springtime for Hitler" with Munsey surrounded by dancers in the manner of a Busby Berkeley movie with the results displayed on screens at the four corners of the house.

Bosley-Reynolds and Shankle develop a nice sense of camaraderie in the leading roles. Unfortunately, a plot point concerning "a producer's hat" requires that Bosley-Reynolds wear a fedora at certain times in the show, and the particular hat chosen by Munsey (in his job as Toby's costume designer as opposed to his inspired work as a performer) and the way in which Bosley-Reynolds wears it low over his eyes blocks half his face from the audience's view all too often. The rest of Munsey's work on costumes is a fine approximation of the look of the original. As a performer, he sells the big production number just as Adam Grabau puts over both "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop" and "Haben Sie Gehört Das Deutsche Band?" Talk of selling big numbers, however, nothing can quite match Rayca's marvelous work on "When You've Got It, Flaunt It."

Of special note is the work of Christopher Youstra and his small live band that is augmented by a computerized accompaniment system called OrchEXTRA. The use of pre-programmable computer sound generators as replacements for live players has been an emotional topic for quite a while now, and this reviewer has been distinctly unimpressed with the experience with many faux-orchestra systems. This, however, is the second time I've been impressed with the OrchEXTRA system. This time, without knowing that the system was in use, I came away convinced that some sort of augmentation of the four or five players listed in the program must be happening. It turns out that it was OrchEXTRA filling in the backgrounds, providing string-like depth and pounding home the countermelodies of Doug Besterman's masterful orchestrations of Glen Kelly's delightful arrangements that sparked the Broadway production. The sound of the OrchEXTRA plus live combo here isn't the same as on Broadway, but few would expect such a thing. After all, on Broadway there was a pit band of twenty-three, including none other than former Mouseketeer Cuby O'Brien on drums. The effect here, however, is fully satisfying and even thrilling at times - especially when Katie Kellert flits flightily on flute.

Music and lyrics by Mel Brooks. Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan. Directed and choreographed by Chris Suchan. Music direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: David Eske (set) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Terrence Sweeney (stage manager). Cast: Frank Anthony, Heather Marie Beck, David Bosley-Reynolds, Helen Marie Bunch, Debra Buonaccorsi, Rebecca Fale Chiu, Tina Marie DeSimone, Parker Brown, Rebecca Garrahy, Adam Grabau, Elizabeth A. Hester, David Jennings, Jen Kohlhafer, Kevin Laughon, Daniel L. McDonald, Darren McDonnell, Rachel Morgan, Lawrence B. Munsey, Elizabeth Rayca, Jeffrey Shankle, Terrence Sweeney, Joseph Thanner, Gabe Veneziano, Victoria Winter.


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November 15, 2007 - February 15, 2008
The Sound of Music
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:55 - one very long intermission
A sparkling staging of a classic with a delightful star

Click here to buy the CD


Jessica Ball is one wonderful Maria! She won't drive the memory of Julie Andrews from the mind of all who love the film version of this classic, and she won't supplant Mary Martin in the hearts of died-in-the-wool theater recording fans. But she is a great addition to your store of Maria memories. She's chipper, youthful, a near-contemporary to the oldest of the fearsome Captain's children she's supposed to supervise as governess (making the line "well, we'll just be good friends" seem so natural when Liesl says she doesn't need a governess) and just mature enough to make the love between the Captain and the Governess seem natural. What is more, she matures right before your eyes as is necessary for the story to work. At first she's the personification of the  flibbertigibbet the nuns sing about. By the end, she's the strong, mature woman who manages the family's escape from the Nazis. And she does it all while singing beautifully.

Storyline: Based on the real-life story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers, the musical details novitiate Maria Rainer's assignment from her convent to be governess to the seven children of a widowed former Captain in the Austrian Navy as Hitler's Third Reich is on the rise. Maria falls in love with the children and their father and he falls in love with her. The takeover of Austria by the Nazis forces the family to flee over the hills that had become alive with the sound of their music.

The score by Rodgers and Hammerstein is, of course, one of the jewels of the American Musical Theater. With nine or ten songs that most moderately theater-literate people carry in their head, the evening has something of the feel of a visit with old friends. But each of these songs serves a very real purpose in the story being told and it is fascinating to see again how well they fit and how very functional they are. It is a pleasure to have the two songs for which Richard Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics for the film after the death of Oscar Hammerstein presented as part of the whole. Note, too, the beautiful liturgical music which many in the audience may assume is authentic. Well, every note was written by Mr. Rodgers just as every word and note of "Edelweiss" is the product of Rodgers and Hammerstein ... not a traditional Austrian folk song as so many seem to think. As a play, The Sound of Music has taken some unfair punishment from time and memory. It has a reputation for excessive sweetness which denies the emotional impact of the tense story of a family trapped by the onslaught of Nazism. With heiling salutes and swastikas as well as children gathering on their governess' bed to sing of "The Lonely Goatherd," the tension built by Lindsay and Crouse in a well integrated book will keep you from feeling overly sugared.

Lynn Sharp Spears and Lisa Carrier alternate in the role of the Mother Abbess. Spears sang the night we reviewed the show and her voice soared. With "Climb Every Mountain" being the final song in act one, it was the sound of her voice that remained in the ears of the audience throughout a more than half hour intermission. The team of Debra Buonaccorsi and Andrew Horn as the Captain's aristocratic would-be-fiancée and the manipulative concert impresario is entertaining, with Horn doing some charming work and Buonaccorsi adding a touch of class to the biting comedy of "No Way To Stop It." David Bosley Reynolds provided his smooth, deep vocals as the Captain, but didn't seem to contribute much emotion until the final moments of the drama.

The most significant disappointment in this otherwise sparkling production is the lack of a sizeable orchestra to support the more than sizeable cast. Two keyboards, a reed player and a drummer do not an orchestra make! Musical director Reenie Codelka need not take the blame for the thin sound supporting the singers. The decision as to the budget for an orchestra would be guest producer Catherine Gietka's within the constraints laid on by the theater, and this certainly isn't an inexpensive show to mount. The large cast, multiple settings, period-specific costumes and the necessity to have separate teams of children in order to have so many performances each week, make it a costly show. But, still. Four players? On the positive side, the sound amplification is as well done as any show here in recent memory. The entire show is given a distinctly amplified sound, but whether the credit goes to sound designer Drew Dedrick or the sound board operator of the night, the amplification was consistent, well balanced and maintained at a comfortable level.

Music by Richard Rodgers. Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse suggested by "The Story of the Trapp Family Singers." Directed and choreographed by Samn Huffer. Musical Direction by Reenie Codelka.  Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Samn Huffer (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Eryn Chaney (stage manager). Cast: Jessica Ball, Hutson Bauman or Aviad Bernstein, David Bosley-Reynolds, Maddie Brown or Rachel Petti, Debra Buonaccorsi, Melynda Burdette, Kerry Deitrick, John Dellaporta, Gabriella DeLuca or Laura Keena, Charlie Eichler or Ryan Mercer, Kaila Friedman or Bailey Gabrish, Bernadette Gietka, Jerry Gietka, Maya Goldman or Chloe Yetter, Adam Grabau, Andrew Horn, Meghan Jarvie or Megan Tavares or Madeline Ulman, Casey Klein or Michael Wilcox, Dan Sonntag, Lynn Sharp Spears or Lisa Carrier, Laura Van Duzer, Ariel Vinitsky, Genevieve Williams, Victoria Winter.


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August 23 - November 11, 2007
Titanic
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:50 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a thrillingly staged and superbly sung emotional musical drama
Click here to buy the CD


When the Broadway production of Maury Yeston's masterful musical of the most famous ship sinking in history posted its closing notice in 1999, I bought a ticket to return one last time just to listen to its superb score. I assumed it would never again be sung as thrillingly as it was at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on New York's 47th Street. When the lackadaisical touring version came to the Kennedy Center, I felt that the return visit to New York was amply justified. I was wrong, however, about never hearing the score sung as well again. The new production at Toby's Dinner Theatre is, if anything, more thrilling than the original. It isn't quite as polished, or as note-for-note superb as the original, but it is even more emotionally charged and offers moments of the highest musical drama. It is also matched by a staging of the story that is impressive with some of the most visually striking tableaux accomplished on Toby's dinner-theater-in-the-round stage in recent memory.

Storyline: Some of the richest people in the world sailed on R.M.S. Titanic along with second-class passengers who hoped to rub elbows with them and third class passengers seeking a new life in the new world. The ship also carried the hopes, dreams and pride of the owners, operators and builders of "the largest moving object in the world." The story of the maiden voyage that turned abruptly to disaster on a chill and still night in April, 1912 when an iceberg tore a hole in the hull is told with stark imagery, touching themes and personal emotions.

Every few years, a show comes along which proves that a thoroughly satisfying musical can be crafted on almost any subject if the creators can find its heart and its humanity. A murderous barber providing human meat for hot pies? Sure! A man eating plant? Why not? Congress debating a declaration of independence? Of course. Then why not a ship that takes 1,500 souls to their deaths in an icy ocean? Why not, indeed? The heart of this show is the collective drams of the people on board "the ship of dreams." It required a means of reducing the hundreds of stories into packages an audience can grasp in under three hours. The genius of the work is that it deals with those dreams in four groups - First, Second and Third Class and the crew. Individuals voice individual emotions, but each group constitutes a character and the common element of each group is its devotion to its common dreams.

Toby fields a cast of twenty-five, but at times it feels as if there are twice that many on the stage and perhaps three times as many voices in the larger choral sequences. Christopher Youstra's work as music director is notable not just in the orchestral accompaniment, which is sufficient, but in the achievement of vocal clarity and combined emotion that is at times nothing short of thrilling.  Dozens of the original Broadway costumes have been rented, many of them the strikingly opulent gowns for the ladies in first class. Veteran set designer Richard Montgomery has met the challenge of this most demanding dramatic structure. There are twenty scenes taking place in 25 different locales, and while Montgomery blends some of these without making clear distinctions, the scope of the piece is well served. Co-directors Tony Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey keep the balance between visual and musical spectacle in check although the final sequence fails to bring the story full circle as it did as staged on Broadway, leaving some of the audience unclear as to the scope of the final, mystical reunion.

While the entire cast is excellent, there are some some notable standouts. As the tormented designer of the Titanic, Russell Sunday does the best work since his Jekyll and Hyde earned him a Helen Hayes Award nomination. All three of the Irish lasses in third class are good but Jessica Ball is simply spectacular, and the pairing of Sam Ludwig as the stoker in the boiler room and Byron Fenstermaker as the radioman results in a thrilling duet on "The Night Was Alive." Andrew Horn has been getting better and better in supporting roles over the past few years at Toby's and his work as the senor first-class steward is a new high for him.

Music and lyrics by Maury Yeston. Story and book by Peter Stone. Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Choreography by Lawrence B. Munsey. Design: Richard Montgomery (set) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Eryn Chaney and Nicole Chopyk (stage managers). Cast: Jessica Ball, Heather Marie Beck, Robert Beidermann, David Bosley-Reynolds, Melynda Burdette, Kerry Deitrick, John Dellaporta, Byron Fenstermaker, Jenny Fersch, Emily Ann Formica, Ben Gibson, Adam Grabau, Janine Gulisano-Sunday, Andrew Horn, Laura Keena, Sam Ludwig, Daniel L. McDonald, Ryan Manning, Lawrence B. Munsey, Joshua D. Singer, Dan Sonntag, Rosie Sowa, Russell Sunday, Joseph Thanner, Kate Williams.


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June 14 - August 19, 2007
Little Shop of Horrors
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:30 - one intermission
A tuneful send-up of a 50s horror movie
Click here to buy the CD


This high-energy, high-camp, highly entertaining show has been a staple of regional, community and school theater companies ever since its off-Broadway debut twenty-five years ago. There is a reason for that. Given a talented cast such as you will find at Toby's, it can be a great deal of fun, and with a skilled director such as Toby herself with co-director Ray Hatch, it can have a touch of emotional bite to it. And, of course, it has that ever growing plant! The real strength, however, is the tuneful, inventive and highly enjoyable score that Alan Menken and his late partner Howard Ashman came up with to tell the strange story that is based on an old Roger Corman horror movie that played the drive-ins of the 1960’s. The package comes together at Toby's and the result is an enjoyable evening with a sterling staring performance by David James as the nebbish flower store assistant.

Storyline: When he cuts his finger, a nerdish young man working in the derelict “Skid Row Florist” discovers that a Venus Flytrap-like plant responds to human blood. Soon the plant has grown to amazing proportions, gathering publicity for the shop and bringing fame and fortune to the shop owner and the young man. However, he has to come up with more and more blood (and entire bodies as well) as the plant gets bigger and begins to speak - its first words being “Feed Me!” He starts with the a sadistic dentist who is the abusive boyfriend of the girl who works in the shop. But then needs to find victims who don’t seem to be quite such logical candidates for being turned into plant food.

David James just gets better and better as a featured performer or star at Toby's Dinner Theaters in Columbia and Baltimore. He has two Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor to his credit (The Wizard of Oz in 1998 and Godspell in 2004). As the athletically challenged would-be stripper in The Full Monty at Toby's Baltimore earlier this year, he was both funny and touching in a secondary part. Here he is the star, and as Seymour who would do just about anything to win the unattainable girl, he is - well - both funny and touching. His characterizations are sharp and specific and all evening long he seems to be delivering at full intensity - and he's a delight.

Heather Marie Beck is the girl of his dreams. She's better toward the end than early on, but the part of the ditsy blond with low self esteem is a hard one to pull off in the first act. That is when her lack of self esteem allows her to be victimized by the demonic dentist of a boyfriend. (Russell Sunday struts his way through the dentist role to mixed effect.) By the second act's big number, "Suddenly Seymour," Beck has blossomed. David Bosley Reynolds seems to carry over the remnant of his work as Tevye in Toby's Fiddler on the Roof to this show as the flower shop owner who would adopt Seymour to retain his strange plant. It is an affect that comes across as an affectation. Jeffrey Shankle, on the other hand, does sparkling work in a series of smaller parts.

Then there is the plant. Ah, there is the challenge. With a voice provided by Genevieve Williams, it takes two to manipulate its parts. It is an act of puppeteering that requires a deft touch with an ungainly structure. The team here never really gets into synch with the voice, but still manages to make "Audrey II" a distinct character in the show. Menken and Ashman provide the plant with songs filled with individuality and humor, treating the plant as a full character in the piece, which is one of its keys to success.

Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman. Music by Alan Menken. Based on the screenplay by Charles Griffith. Directed by Toby Orenstein and Ray Hatch. Choreographed by Ray Hatch. Musical direction by Cedric Lyles. Design: Dave Eske (set) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Nicole Chopyk (stage manager). Cast: Heather Marie Beck, David Bosley-Reynolds, Jessica Coleman, Priscilla Cuellar, Adam Grabau, Ray Hatch, David James, Erik Keiser, Michael Lehan, Robin Rouse, Jeffrey Shankle, Rosie Sowa, Russell Sunday, Alana J. Thomas, Anwar Thomas, Genevieve Williams.


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February 22 - June 10, 2007
George M!
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:20 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rousing song and dance show
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You will walk out of Toby's humming or whistling the tunes of George M. Cohan and singing the praises of  the star of the show, Jeffrey Shankle. You may not notice another major element in the success of this song and dance extravaganza. That is the contribution of Toby herself, the director who takes a show that was built as a star vehicle but which suffered from a very weak script and puts all the concentration on that star to divert your attention from the fact that the flow of the story between those songs is herky jerky in a way that hasn't worked in a major musical since, well, since George M. Cohan himself brought more narrative cohesion and sharper storytelling to the stage just about a century ago. In his two incandescent decades on Broadway he wrote the stories and the songs, produced the shows and starred. In the process he churned out dozens of hits. Most of them are here, and they are great fun in Toby's hands with the assistance of the sharp six-member band of music director Pamela Wilt, and the spirited choreography of Germaine Salsberg, including  "Over There," "You're A Grand Old Flag," "Give My Regards To Broadway" and "Mary's A Grand Old Name."

Storyline: A Bio-musical telling the story of the rise of George M. Cohen (from vaudeville hoofer in a family act to the self-proclaimed "Man Who Owns Broadway) who wrote the music, lyrics and book for shows he produced and starred in for over two decades right on through the roaring twenties.

This show never was much more than a star vehicle. It opened on Broadway in 1968 with Joel Grey in the title role, and was viewed as confirmation of his star power. After a number of stints as replacements for the original stars of Broadway musicals, he had his first shot at originating a part with Cabaret, and he sang and danced away with the Tony Award. This was his next project, and he again impressed critics and audiences alike, keeping the show running for the full year of his contract despite reviews that said it's script was "ill-prepared" and "mediocrely written." The book is credited in part to Michael Stewart who certainly knew how to make a better show, but he didn't work on it long, turning it over to his sister Fran Pascal and her husband. (That is the same Fran Pascal who did the revisions of Michael Stewart's book for the revival of Carnival! that just closed at the Kennedy Center.) In the original, director Joe Layton was credited with doing just about all that could be done with the show. Here, Toby gets the same credit - she draws attention to every one of the show's strengths and distracts your attention from almost every one of its weaknesses. The result is a bright, fun, entertaining evening that will leave your feet tapping and your face in a smile.

Jeffrey Shankle seems born to the role of George M. He dances with an easy grace, sings with a sweet voice, sells his songs with panache and gets the most out of both comedy and the sentimental scenes. He's been a staple of dinner theater in the Potomac Region for a decade (he was featured in every musical but one that we reviewed at the old West End Dinner Theater in Virginia before it's lamented closing in 2004) and here he gets a role that is a match for his talents. Nice work is done by other members of the cast as well, including Samn Huffer as Cohan's producing partner Sam Harris, and Darren McDonnell as George's dad. But, just as from 1905 to roughly 1924 no one left the theater at a Cohan show talking about anyone but Cohan, the spotlight here is on Shankle and he holds it brightly.

A key factor in the energy and excitement of the production is the sound - the sound of the singers, the sound of the taps on the floor and the sound of the band. The band plays energetically and the amplification matches the action, so the overall impression is of strong rhythmic work whether it comes from a drum, a trumpet, a flute, a throat or a metal plate attached to the soul of a shoe. It all works together to get the juices flowing - and the audience responds to the excitement.

Music and lyrics by George M. Cohan. Book by Michael Stewart and John and Francine Pascal. Lyrics and musical revisions by Mary Cohan. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Musical direction by Pamela Wilt. Choreographed by Germaine Salsberg. Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Vicki Sussman and Amy Kaplan (properties) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kristine Christiansen (photography) Nicole Chopyk (stage manager). Cast: Ashley Adkins, Payton Albers or Kenneth "Glenn" Boyette or Kailyn Crabill, Debra Buonaccorsi, John Dellaporta, Chanelle Dishon, Jamie Eacker, Maria Egler, Jenny Fersch, Elizabeth Fette, Ben Gibson, Samn Huffer, Jonathan Jackson, Tiffany Jarman, C.J. Kish, Jen Kohlhafer, Darren McDonnel, Elliott Scher, Jeffrey Shankle, Heather Sheeler, Dan Sonntag, Derek Tatum, Hannah Thornhill, Anwar Thomas, Trish Watkins, Alan Wiggins.


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November 23, 2006 - January 14, 2007
Here's Love
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:50 - one 30 minute intermission
The musical version of The Miracle on 34th Street

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Just as Toby's in Baltimore is currently presenting the musical version of the holiday classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, Toby's in Columbia has a holiday musical based on a Hollywood classic. This one has a somewhat stronger set of credentials as a stage musical, with book, lyrics and music by Meredith Willson, who had a mega-hit with The Music Man and a solid success with The Unsinkable Molly Brown before he wrote this show for Broadway where it met with moderate success in 1963. The story is well known to anyone who has had a television in the last two or three decades, and the score includes some fun material. The cast here is predominantly Toby's regulars. Headlining are Debra Buonaccorsi, who has graced the stages of Arena (Camelot) Fords (Big River) Open Circle (Evita) and Olney (Anything Goes) as well as Toby's, and Jeffrey Shankle, who has been a reliable featured player in dinner theater circles in the Potomac Region ever since his days at the old West End Dinner Theatre. Buddy Piccolino returns to dinner theatre (he used to be a regular at Harlequin) in the Santa role.

Storyline: Hired as a quick replacement for Macy's Department Store Santa, Kris Kringle revolutionizes retail when he sends customers to Gimbel's for gifts that Macy's may be out of. When it becomes clear that his uletide spirit is due to his conviction that he is, in fact, Santa Clause, he's brought to court to show cause why he shouldn't be committed for mental illness. The daughter of Macy's marketing manager who has been well taught that there is no Santa comes to his rescue along with a similarly skeptical neighbor, a lawyer who eventually argues in Santa's defense.

Director Shawn Kettering does a good job of laying out the action on Toby's four-sided playing space and pacing the story. Had he more to work with in Willson's script, he might have produced a memorable evening. As it is, however, Willson didn't do much to convert the screenplay into a play that would work as a two-act stage musical. Instead, he wrote songs that would fit in the existing structure, often simply pausing the action to let one or another character sing something. Sometimes it is affecting - as in Debra Buonaccorsi's lovely "You Don't Know" or Jeffrey Shankle's "My Wish." But even when the song is both well written and well performed, it still seems that the story has been halted to allow time for a tune.

With a show that relies so on the musical values of its score, it is surprising to find this one performed with so little spark under the usually reliable leadership of musical director Douglas Lawler. Of course, he doesn't have anything close to the number of players at his disposal as a Willson score would put to good use, but the attention to melodic line, rhythmic lilt and enunciation here is less than he's often achieved with the same resources before. The production is also plagued by an inconsistency of the sound, with some fully amplified voices and other practically indecipherable ones. It is doubtful if many in the audience even understood the lyric of the opening parade number despite the fact that the song title "Big Clown Balloons" is printed in the program in the helpful phonetic "Big Ca-Lown Balloons."

Shankle is really quite charming throughout most of the show. Willson saddles him with one of the most un-charming macho-comedy songs, however. He keeps a stiff upper lip while working his way through "She Hadda Go Back" and then returns to the charming persona he's established. Russell Sunday gets to boost the energy level for a few minutes in the second act to lead the stirring "That Man Over There" in which he maintains that the man in question happens to be Santa Clause.

Music, lyrics and book by Meredith Willson. Based on Miracle on 34th Street, story by Valentine Davies, screenplay by George Seaton. Directed by Shawn Kettering. Music Direction by Douglas Lawler. Choreography by Amanda Tschirgi. Design: Drew Dedrick (set) Georgette Feldman (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jimmy Engelkemier (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Nicole Chopyk (stage manager). Cast: Jessica Ball, Debra Buonaccorsi, Adam Court or Aaron Jarvie, Esther Covington, Dean Davis, Maria Egler, Elizabeth Fette, Bailey Gabrish or Maya Goldman, Jerry Gietka, Kyle Guindon, Janine Guilisano-Sunday, Dave Guy, Matt Johnson, Shawn Kettering, Jennifer Kohlhafer, Nick Lehan, Darren McDonnell, Buddy Piccolino, Sophia Santiago or Jazzy Williams, Jeffrey Shankle, Russell Sunday, Conner Walsh, Jason Wilson.


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-September 8 - November 19, 2006
Kiss Me, Kate
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:55 - one intermission
A substantial production of a great musical comedy

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The great Cole Porter's greatest hit was arguably also his greatest musical, period. The book by Sam and Bella Spewack meshed Shakespeare with the conventions of a Broadway musical, and Porter rose to the occasion with a score of undeniable charm, lilt and his own unmistakable pop-sensitivity. It has been revived many times, most recently the tremendous Broadway version in which Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie starred in 1999. Here the leads are Toby's regulars Russell Sunday (Helen Hayes nominee for Jekyll & Hyde here in 2003) and Janine Gulisano-Sunday (four time Helen Hayes Nominee - one of which was also for that 2003 production of Jekyll & Hyde). Now man and wife in real life, the two have an easy familiarity on stage that works nicely for this strangely sluggish production of a show that really should swing.

Storyline: On openin’ night of a musical comedy based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, the leading couple are warring privately while they battle on stage. He’s the director as well as the co-star, and she’s his former wife, newly engaged to another. Their bickering is exacerbated by the fact that the actor playing Lucentio has a bad gambling addiction and has signed the star’s name to an IOU for his losses in a game run by the mob. Gangsters take over the performance to ensure repayment.

Porter's score is justifiably famous. It was written in the late 1940s, a time when a really successful Broadway show might produce two or three big hit songs. There were five or six in this score as well as tremendous extended dance sequences and some fine comedy numbers, all in a score that served the story well. The book has a touch of Shakespeare, using both the concept of The Taming of the Shrew and some of the actual dialogue. Porter even used Shakespeare's lines for song ideas such as "I've Come to Wive it Wealthily in Padua" and "Were Thine That Special Face." The book does less to counter the misogyny apparent in Shakespeare's text than it might if it were being written today. However, it and this production skim over the more disturbing aspects of the story of a man breaking the spirit of a woman in order to make her a suitable mate. It is really a traditional backstage musical comedy with plenty of comic complications. The revival on which this production is based incorporated "From This Moment On," a Cole Porter song from another show which was used in the 1953 movie version of Kiss Me, Kate.

Gulisano-Sunday is suitably radiant and feisty as the "shrew," and she certainly is in fine voice. Russell Sunday's voice is also impressive but he moves a bit awkwardly on stage, something that has not been evident in in his earlier work. Still, when their voices combine on "Wunderbar" there is lyrical magic in the air. Jeffrey Shankle leads the most high spirited scene of the night with his musical tribute to his girl, an actress who is playing "Bianca" in the show the troupe is putting on. "Bianca" is played by Debra Buonaccorsi, and she's very good in her duet with Shankle, "Why Can't You Behave?" but just a bit flat the rest of the evening. Lawrence B. Munsey leads the second act opener "Too Darn Hot" which should be a knock- your-socks- off display of jazz dancing, but which seems stuck in the thick air of a humid night. His attempts at spins don't quite whirl with either grace or energy. Darren McDonnell does a good job on the smaller role of the star's fiancé. It is nice to have Robert Biederman back doing the pre-show warm up routine. He does the warm up for every show he's in but he hasn't been in a show here for a while. Once the show gets going he teams up with David James to make a fun pair of gangsters who try to mesh their thuggish behavior with the sensitivities they believe are required behind the scenes of such a high class cultural activity as a play based on Shakespeare.

For some reason, the image of the show, instead of being bright and colorful, is shadowy and sometimes dull. The lighting seems tightly focused in scenes where cast members move about a great deal, passing from pools of light into darkness while still speaking or singing. It isn't just an effort to distinguish the on-stage and the back-stage portions of the story. The on-stage scenes suffer from the problem with even Biedermann and James' delivery of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" dimly lit. That is one of the brightest songs in the Broadway cannon. The support of the the live orchestra, often a highlight at Toby's, is strong and clear, but rarely manages to do what a Porter score requires: swing. As a result, the lush operetta-ish ballads like "Wunderbar" and "So In Love" are a delight, but the jazzier portions of the score such as "Too Darn Hot" and "Another Op'nin', Another Show" just don't perk as they should. Still, it is a Porter score so it has delights aplenty.

Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter. Book by Sam and Bella Spewack. Directed by Carole Graham Lehan. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction Christopher Youstra. Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) Nicole Chopyk (stage manager). Cast: Jessica Ball, Robert Biedermann, Debra Buonaccorsi, Maya Cherian, Maria Egler, Elizabeth Fette, Janine Gulisano-Sunday, Samn Huffer, David James, Matt Johnson, Jennifer Kohlhafer, Kevin Laughon, Darren McDonnell, Robert Mintz, Lawrence B. Munsey, Phil Olejack, Jesse Palmer, Amanda Parker, Jeffrey Shankle, Russell Sunday, Derek Tatum, Kelly Williams.


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June 22 - September 3, 2006
Buddy

Running time 2:35 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a rock and roll concert masquerading as a musical
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This bio-musical, based on the short career of rock n' roller Buddy Holly, starts off sluggishly with lots of predictable storyline material to get through. But when it gets going later in the evening, it takes off! This is principally due to the work of Matthew Schleigh, who plays Holly, Jeffrey Glen Hitaffer, who plays Ritchie Valens (of "La Bamba" fame), Shawn Kettering who both co-directs and rocks out as "The Big Bopper" (remember "Chantilly Lace" from oldies-but-goodies radio?), and music director Douglas Lawler's rocking band. It uses the songs of Holly, who died in a plane crash in 1959 at the age of twenty-two, after having six top-forty hits in just two years. The show builds to a recreation of the last concert he performed before the airplane crash that ended his life and those of his co-stars that night, Valens and Jape Richardson (the real name of "The Big Bopper").

Storyline: Young Buddy Holly wants to sing and play his own kind of music - rock and roll - rather than pursue a career in country music as his handlers prefer. He gets his first break, records hit after hit, and strikes off on his own when his producer and the members of his band don't see things his way. Despite more hits, and with a pregnant wife to support, he has to set out on the road, performing one-night stands as the headliner with other pop record stars. After a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, he takes off for the next city but his plane crashes, bringing a short life and a brief career to a close.

This show was an early effort to craft a musical out of the catalogue of one celebrity's career -- what has become known as a "juke box musical." The score includes much of Holly's best known music including "Peggy Sue" and "That’ll Be The Day." It was a big hit in London, playing for twelve years, and it had a decent run on Broadway in 1990-91. The script takes something of a hero worship approach to the story: Holly is portrayed as a determined genius whose insistence on his artistic integrity is elevated to the status of a force for artistic purity that revolutionizes an art form. Never mind the contributions of everyone from Fats Domino to Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Didley to Little Richard or Chuck Berry to Bill Haley. And Elvis? Well, Elvis gets a mention in the dialogue at one point. There's no effort here to use music to tell any part of the story, all of the twenty-eight songs are simply sung - either in a recording studio or on stage (one is sung by Holly to his young wife, but he's just singing the new song he has written, its not a traditional musical theatre moment when a character bursts into song because his heart is too full to express a thought in mere words.)

As Holly, Matthew Schleigh also starts sluggishly, but builds to a fine crescendo. In the softer numbers he has difficulty maintaining the melody and his sense of pitch often wanders, but when he gets the chance to rock, he really sparks. Hitaffer's Valens and Kettering's "Bopper" routines help build the final sequence to a fever pitch. Earlier in the evening, Ray Hatch gives the audience a taste of the excitement to come with a short appearance as a Little Richard-like headliner at the Harlem Apollo Theatre. Notable non-singing support comes from Phil Olejack as a Lubbock, Texas, country music disc jockey who champions Holly's work, Darren McDonnell as Holly's first record producer, and Virginia Cavaliere as Maria Elena, so quickly made a widow by the crash of the four passenger airplane called "Miss American Pie."

On the design side, things are fairly predictable with serviceable set pieces sliding on and off the playing space in Toby's theater in the round. Lynn Joslin's lighting is sharp and tight for dramatic scenes, and alternating color changes along with a mirror ball add excitement for the big concert sequence. Janine Gulisano Sunday's costumes are effective representations of the on-stage garb Holly, Valens and Richardson were known to wear, but her choices for off-stage scenes seem strange, especially the faded jeans Schleigh wears as Holly at a time when jeans were often new-blue, pressed and rolled up at the cuff.

Songs from the catalogue of Buddy Holly and a few of his contemporaries. Written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson. Directed by Toby Orenstein and Shawn Kettering. Music direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: Pete Hengen (set) Janine Gulisano Sunday (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Chris Christianson (photography) Nicole Chopyk (stage manager). Cast: Virginia Cavaliere, Jessica Coleman, Esther Covington, Maria Egler, Elizabeth Fette, Ray Hatch, Jeffrey Glen Hitaffer, Shawn Kettering, Nick Lehan, Darren McDonnell, Phil Olejack, Brittany Proia, José Antonio Ramos, Matthew Schleigh, Evan Shyer, Luke Smith, Jason Wilson.


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February 24 - June 18, 2006
Thoroughly Modern Millie

Reviewed March 3
Running time: 2:40 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for good old musical comedy fun

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Toby has done it again. She's taken a thoroughly entertaining, up-beat Broadway musical that was designed to give a crowd a good time and made it work on her four-sided stage so that the crowd at her dinner theater in Columbia has just as good a time. In the process, she unveils a new star of a leading lady. Lauren Spencer-Harris has not been seen on this stage before. She's the director of the theatre magnet program of Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts. Apparently, she is no stranger to performing and she brings a spark, a sense of pizzazz and a fine ability to belt out a bright song to a role that requires her to be on stage, leading the proceedings almost the entire evening long.

Storyline: Retaining the basic story of the famous movie comedy, the Broadway musical tells of a young woman who comes to New York at the height of the flapper era determined to follow Vogue’s advice to the modern woman – marry money. In the process, she stumbles into a racket that kidnaps unattached young women who come to New York to break into show business and ships them off to become street walkers. Naturally, she breaks up the criminal activity while finding true love.

Dick Scanlan, who cobbled together the book for the musical along with screenplay writer Richard Morris, worked on a few changes to the story for this production, removing the stereotyping of Chinese immigrants and substituting stereotyped Lithuanians and Gypsies. The changes seem to draw fewer laughs than the original but part of the difficulty may be the less prominent set-pieces used to project translations - a feature that many remember from the original as being highly, well, original. The score very properly and effectively lifts material from the original movie and adds some ten new songs. Some of the show’s best musical moments come from music composed by James Van Heusen (the title song), Jay Thompson ("Jimmy"), Peter Il’ych Tchaikovsky ("The Nutty Cracker Suite") and Sir Arthur Sullivan ("The Speed Test"). The songs that were written by Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan specifically for the musical are well integrated with the movie's material and one is even a standout – "Forget About the Boy."

Thoroughly Modern Millie was and is a dance show, and choreographer Ilona Kessell takes full advantage of its opportunities as she puts her young, trim and energetic troupe through their paces. Most notable is her terrific work on hand gestures for the ensemble in everything from flapper romps to the Charleston. Of course, it helps that they have the hot sound of Douglas Lawler's band - especially a very hot trumpet that hits some impressive punctuation notes. The high energy/good time feel is re-emphasized by sharp and colorful costumes and warm, bright lighting.

Spencer-Harris isn't the only new face to impress in the cast. Toby also introduces Ken Ewing, a big talent who takes on the oversized role of the boss Millie sets her sights on, and Richelle Howie who soars on her two big numbers, "Only in New York" and "Long As I'm Here With You" and joins in the comic foolishness of the finale. Ewing teams with Tess Rohan for a standout scene, singing Victor Herbert's "I'm Falling in Love with Someone" as Spencer-Harris sits between them avoiding the temptation to mug the scene for all its worth. Toby's regulars shine as well, especially Jeffery Shankle as the boy Millie really loves. His delivery of "What Do I Need With Love" is every bit as good as was the performance of the original "Jimmy" on Broadway.

Music by Jeanine Tesori and others. Book by Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan. Lyrics by Dick Scanlan and others. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: David A. Hopkins (set and stage management) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Chris Christiansen (photography). Cast: Ashley Adkins, Kate Arnold, Debra Barber-Eaton, Kurt Boehm, Maya Cherian, Michael Carruthers or Shawn Kettering, Tina Marie DeSimone, Jamie Eacker, Maria Egler, Ken Ewing, Lisa Ferris, Richelle Howie, Jonathan Jackson, Vincent Kirk, Jordan Klien, Jennifer Kohlafer, Kevin Laughon, David Bosley Reynolds, Tess Rohan, Jeffrey Shankle, Lauren Spencer-Harris, Samantha Sturm, Derek Tatum, Anwar Thomas, Alan Wiggins.


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November 24, 2005 - February 19, 2006
Mame

Reviewed December 23
Running time 2:40 - One Intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a star vehicle given a star caliber performance
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Jerry Herman wrote this musical as a star vehicle for Angela Lansbury. Whenever it is given a star caliber performance, it works like a charm. Whenever it is given something less in the title role and people try to pick up the slack in the subordinate roles, it falls on its face. Toby's has Cathy Mundy returning to their stage after a seven year absence to play the free-thinking, life-loving Auntie Mame, and she gives the show the shining star performance it needs, one that sparkles from the start and builds to a warm emotional richness just as the part requires. She's surrounded by quality supporting players but the evening is never anything but Mame's, pure and simple.

Storyline: A musical version of Patrick Dennis’ story which tells of a free thinking, fun loving and innocently eccentric woman who suddenly must raise her nephew who was orphaned at age twelve. In raising the boy she wants to teach him all about the world and the wonder of living life to the fullest, but she learns some important lessons about love and responsibility from him.

Dennis described Mame as "a froth of whipped cream and champagne and daydreams and Nuit de Noël perfume." Mundy's combination of daydreams and champagne with whipped toping is just right. So, too, is her energy level which never flags for a moment, sparking the rest of the cast and lifting the spirits of the audience, many of whom may have indulged just a bit too much at the buffet before the curtain. Mundy's "If He Walked Into My Life" is thrilling.

The cast includes a number of Toby's regulars providing spirited performances. The most fun is that of Ron Curameng as Mame's houseboy, Ito. Kristin Jepperson gets lots of laughs out of her character's crisis in "Gooch's Song" and Debra Barber-Eaton makes a satisfying best chum who joins in with Mundy on "Bosom Buddies." David Bosley Reynolds is the delight of the first act as the southerner who courts the northern Mame, while Kurt Boehm arrives for the second act as the older Patrick and delivers a full-voiced "My Best Girl." 

Director Carole Graham Lehan knows a thing or two about staging shows in the four-sided arena that is Toby's Dinner Theatre, so that no one in the audience feels like their seats are in the back of the house. Not only does she manage to rotate her cast members without making it seem as if they are turning to accommodate the audience, she has each performer swiveling their heads so that they are addressing large segments of the audience in each position they take. Douglass Lawler's live band provides a brassy sound and Roger Bennett Riggle's choreography is exciting and energetic.

Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee based on their play Auntie Mame which was based on Patrick Dennis' novel of the same name. Directed by Carole Graham Lehan. Choreography by Roger Bennett Riggle. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: David A. Hopkins (set and lights) Lawrence B. Munsey (costumes) Drew Dedrick (sound) Chris Christiansen (photography) Nicole Chopyk (stage manager). Cast: Charles Abel, Debra Barber-Eaton, Heather Marie Beck, Kurt Boehm, Mary Kate Brouillet, Raymond Brodsky or David Zahor, Ron Curameng, Felicia Curry, Jamie Eacker, Maria Engler, Janine Gulisano, John Guzman, Evan Hoffmann, Samn Huffer, Jonathan Jackson, David James, Kristen Jepperson, Roe Kizeik, Kevin Laughon, Taylor Hilt Mitchell, Cathy Mundy, David Bosley Reynolds, Tess Rohan, Tammy Roberts, Jeffrey Shankle, Russell Sunday, and Alan Wiggins.


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September 8 - November 20, 2005
Aida

Reviewed September 16
Running time 2:45 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for an absorbing pop-rock musical with a fabulous staring performance
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With Elton John's music and Tim Rice's lyrics, this pop-rock version of the story of a Nubian princess taken prisoner by the ancient Egyptians ran on Broadway for over four years before closing last year. Toby's is among the first theaters in the nation to mount a post-Broadway production, and their effort is first-rate. The entire cast is very good and the leads are superb, including Felicia Curry in the title role, assuming the powerful stardom she has seemed destined for at least since her work in Footloose here two years ago. Here she combines intelligence, dignity, loyalty, passion and anguish in her character, all while singing the heck out of the soaring numbers written for the princess.

Storyline: The Egyptian army takes prisoners from neighboring Nubia including, unbeknownst to them, the princes Aida, a young woman with a strong sense of dignity and powerful voice. The Egyptian commander Radames is betrothed to the Pharaoh’s daughter, but falls in love with the princess he thinks is a slave girl. Love and jealousy, patriotism and treason, fate and even reincarnation play in a different version of the story than in the classic opera.

Although it really is her show, Curry isn't the only standout here. That is a good thing since this is a classic love triangle story that requires three strong leads, not just one. Russell Sunday and Janine Guilisano complete the trio splendidly as the  Egyptian warrior and the Pharaoh's daughter - each with solos and duets enough to tear up the house a number of times. Even in smaller parts, Toby has one of her strongest on stage teams. Alan Wiggins makes a more believable con man of a slave than the actor who originated the role on Broadway, and he sings just as well. JP Gulla is similarly impressive as the warrior's father. Each time newcomer Morgan Fannon raises her voice in the relatively small role of a slave girl, she impresses as a future headliner for Toby.

The story is a variation of the story found in Verdi's famous opera, but don’t expect grand opera here. Instead, there is the pop sound of the music composed by Elton John in his first written-for-the-stage musical. And there are lyrics by Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess and parts of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast) which include his trademark idiosyncratic anachronisms, for which I admit a weakness. He has Pharaoh's minister referring to genetics thousands of years before the discovery of DNA ("Don’t come on so cocksure boy / you can’t escape your genes / no point in feeling pure boy / your background intervenes") and the Pharaoh's daughter sounds for all the world like a modern valley girl as she sings "Forget the inner me / observe the outer / I am what I wear / and how I dress."

Neither director Toby Orenstein nor choreographer Ilona Kessell seem to be trying to duplicate the approach of the Broadway production, but neither lets the need to be unique get in the way of simple storytelling. Orenstein adapts it to the needs of theater in the round smoothly, and Kessell manages to avoid the embarrassing peculiarities of some of the dances on Broadway that seemed an attempt to merge "Walk Like an Egyptian" with Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Kessell's dances tell their portion of the story with energy and grace. Jane Schafer and Sally Burke contribute costumes that range from sumptuous (the royal gowns) to evocative (the slave garb) to humorous (a camp fashion show set to "My Strongest Suit"). Music Director Christopher Youstra gets fabulously full sound from the ensemble and sets a driving rhythm for much of the rock in the score, but the use of the virtual orchestra device orchEXTRA yields mixed results. It is particularly unsuccessful behind Curry's explosive "Easy as Life."

Music by Elton John. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographer Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Jane Shafer and Sally Burke (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Nicole Chopyk and Arwen Russell (stage managers). Cast: Charles Abel, Heather Marie Beck, Kurt Boehm, Maya Cherian, Dianna Collins, Felicia Curry, Morgan Fannon, Lauren Fox, David Gregory, Janine Gulisano, JP Gulla, John Guzman, Evan Hoffman, Jonathan Jackson, Leanto E. Jones, Roe Keziek, Lisa McIntosh, Amanda Parker, Michael Rostek, Leo Sheridan, Jill Shullenbarger, Russell Sunday, Alan Wiggins.


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July 20 - September 4, 2005
Grease

Reviewed July 24
Running time 2:25 - one intermission
50s high school nostalgia set to a
Rock and Roll sound

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Offering light entertainment for hot nights, this much revived high spirited rock-n-roll musical of the 1950s comes complete with black leather jackets, hot rods and sock hops featuring songs such as "Summer Nights," "Beauty School Dropout" and "Greased Lightnin’." Directed by Ray Hatch, who choreographed the rather quirky version of Godspell here last summer, this production features a few Toby's regulars and others with fewer Toby's shows under their belts, all of whom combine for the finest moments of the show, those big, full chorus production numbers that end the two acts.

Storyline: The 1959 school year is getting underway at Rydell High. Crises abound. Who goes with whom to the hop? Should the new girl go steady with the boy she met over the summer? What would dropping out of beauty school do to a girl’s life? Will having even a junker of a car improve a boy’s social life?

Grease was an early example of what became a rage for 50s nostalgia. It opened two years before TV’s Happy Days and four years before John Travolta appeared in Welcome Back Kotter. Its view of the 1950s was less idealized than that of its sanitized followers. Then, in 1978, Grease was turned into a John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John movie that carried the sanitization even further, filtering the songs through the then-contemporary Bee-Gee’s sound. Yet later the talented director/choreographer Tommy Tune revived the show on Broadway, viewing the 50s through rose colored glasses that gave everything a hot pink hue. That revival’s pink toned tour was seen in every city of any size around the country. As a result, productions of Grease these days are usually an exercise in nostalgia for the 70s and not for the 50s.

Hatch's production reverts to the less idealized, slightly grittier feel of the original, but it isn't anywhere close to actually being gritty - no Blackboard Jungle this. It does indulge in the sort of sophomoric humor that makes it a bit rough for younger audiences, however. Still, it is a light and enjoyable evening with teen icons of the leather jacket and pedal pusher fashion age. Evan Hoffman and Margo Siebert team up as the a high school stud too interested in his reputation for being cool to acknowledge his real affection and the object of that affection, the clean-cut girl he met over the summer. In the classic tradition of romantic musical comedy structure, there is a subplot of another couple with more comic touches. This involves Jill Shullenbarger as the hard-boiled chick who suspects she's pregnant and JP Gulla as the black leather jacketed owner of the car he calls, in one of the shows best numbers "Greased Lightnin'." Shullenbager is at her best belting "There Are Worse Things I Could Do." Michael Kenny takes on twin roles. He handles the non-singing part of the town's radio disc-jockey with some flair but can't pull off the rock/soul pastiche of "Beauty School Dropout."

As might be expected of a show directed by a choreographer, this version of Grease moves about the playing space of Toby's dinner theater in the round with a rhythmic energy, and the energy level seems to increase as a function of how many performers are on stage at any given time. The dance contest at the prom draws some of the best work, especially the energetic dancing of Lisa Ferris. Larry Munsey seems to have had a good deal of fun designing the costumes for this colorful memory piece and the live band produces a solid rocking sound which challenges sound designer Jason Wilson to amplify all the vocals. That challenge isn't always met as some of the lyrics don't make it over the orchestra's backing.

Book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed and choreographed by Ray Hatch. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: David A. Hopkins (set and stage management) Larry B. Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jason Wilson (sound). Cast: Heather Marie Beck, Celia Blitzer, Caroline Bowman, Felicia Curry, Dean Davis, Lisa Ferris, Andrew Frace, JP Gulla, Jeffrey Glenn Hitaffer, Evan Hoffman, Jonathan Jackson, Michael Kenny, Shawn Kettering, Amanda Parker, Margo Seibert, Jill Shullenbarger, Chris Sizemore, Rosie Sowa, Denise Steadman.


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February 25 - July 17, 2005
Beauty and the Beast

Reviewed May 10
Running time 2:40
Colorful, tuneful production

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Disney's Broadway version of the musical cartoon with a score by Alan Menken and his late partner Howard Ashman, and additional songs by Menken and Tim Rice, opened in 1994 and is still playing. Now it is being licensed for local productions and Toby Orenstein wasted no time putting it on her stage in a production that is colorful and energetic, featuring two very good leading performances and a few good supporting ones as well. The small live orchestra is augmented by a computer called an OrchExtra with a none too satisfying result, and the sound system is stretched beyond its capacity. Still, while the style of the Broadway production pretty much dictates the approach to choreography, scenic and costume design, so the version here is a smaller and less spectacular but yet impressive version of that spectacle show, it is an audience pleaser. It makes a particularly good show for a group of kids out for a spring outing.

Storyline: Linda Woolverton adapted the script she wrote for the 90 minute animated feature about a prince turned into a beast until he can learn to love and be loved in return.  She added depth and detail to the relationship between the prince/beast and the perky girl who has the temerity to read, think and dream for herself. She retained all the palace staff who, as a side effect of the spell, are slowly turning into utensils.

Toby has a great Beauty in Janine Gulisano with her bright eyes, clear voice and chipper charm. The way she handles the well known songs from the movie such as the patter-like opening "Belle" and those added for Broadway like "Home,"  makes you wish there were more songs for the part. Indeed, there is one more and Toby's production includes it as well. "A Change In Me" in the second act was written in 1998 for pop-diva Toni Braxton when she took over the role of Belle briefly. It is a pop-like song that does little to add to the story but gives one more solo to Belle, and Gulisano makes the decision to keep it in the show a source of pleasure.

Also fully satisfying is J. P. Gulla, whose booming voice and strong stage presence are impressive in this his debut at Toby's. The role is intentionally broadly written so that the beast's personality can overcome the limitations of the mask/makeup, and it takes near-overacting to allow both the humor and the charm of the character show through. Gulla gets that right and matches it with the pathos that makes both the act I ending song "If I Can't Love Her?" and the touching library scene with Belle highlights.

Less satisfying is Russell Sunday who is simply flat in the broadly comic villain role of the conceited Gaston. Andrew Frace does nice acrobatic work however as the toady. In the roles of the staff who are becoming utensils, Christopher Gerken is marvelously suave as the candlestick and David James is suitably officious while letting his panic at the prospect of becoming a clock show through. Lani Novak Howe in the role of the housekeeper turning into a teapot certainly delivers the big title number well.

Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Book by Linda Wolverton. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Musical Direction by Christopher Youstra. Fight direction by Lorraine Ressiger. Design: David A. Hopkins (set) Samn Huffer (costumes) Janine Gulisano (wigs) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Jill Shullenbarger (stage manager). Cast: Charlie Abel, Rachel Abrams, Josh Allwardt or Jacob Brittingham or Raymond S. Brodsky or Jonathan Cort, Heather Beck, Kurt Boehm,  Mary Kate Brouillet, Dianna Collins, Felicia Curry, Micayla Diener, Andrew Frace, Christopher Gerken, Janine Gulisano, J. P. Gulla, Even Hoffman, Andrew Horn, Lani Novak Howe, Samn Huffer, Jonathan Jackson, David James, David Jennings, Laura Kelley, Roe Kizeik, Daniel L. McDonald, Darren McDonnell, Amanda Parker, Tess Rohan, Michael Siller, Chris Sizemore, Russell Sunday, Rose Szczesniak, Allan Wiggins.


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October 1 - November 21, 2004
and January 5 - February 20, 2005
Miss Saigon

Reviewed October 21
Running time 2:35 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for a strong story set to great music marvelously sung

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Janine Gulisano, Russell Sunday and Ron Curameng make this local production of the long-running Broadway mega-musical something something special. These three bring a combination of marvelous voices, dramatic intensity and a certain earthy believability to the three central roles of the show in a way that smacks more of reality than of show-business. Curameng is so right as the conniving con man who can find opportunity in any disaster, Sunday is so glorious of voice as the disaffected GI who finds the only spark of beauty left in a war wracked world, and Gulisano is so natural in a role that seems made for her that the entire package is tremendously satisfying.

Storyline: At the end of the conflict the American's call The Vietnam War and that the Vietnamese call The American War, an American soldier falls in love with a Vietnam girl. They live together briefly but the panic during the fall of Saigon separates them and he is sent home thinking she has not survived the collapse. In fact, she escapes to Bangkok where she gives birth to their son and struggles to survive, dreaming of the day they might be reunited. Unaware of her survival or of their son, the American tries to start a new life with an American wife. Then a friend who works for the cause of children of Americans by Vietnamese women who are ostracized as Bui Doi (The Dust of Life) in their own country, discovers the story of the survival of the girl and her son.

Many felt that Les Misérables, the show that Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil wrote before this one, had approached the structure of grand opera. With this follow up, they delved directly into the opera structure of Puccini's Madam Butterfly which few remember was itself based on a play by the Broadway theatrical legend David Belasco which premiered on Broadway in 1900. Again, Schönberg created a score of power and assurance with more than a dozen fantastic melodies ("Why God, Why?," "Sun and Moon," "The Last Night of the World," the declamatory "Bui Doi," and the more up-tempo "The American Dream"). It is a tapestry of sound that turns in on itself with recurring themes sending subliminal signals of plot and mood. With American Richard Maltby, Jr. collaborating on the English lyrics based on Boublil's French originals, the words may not reach Schönberg's level of eloquence but they come close more often than not, and they have the ability to soar when absolutely necessary. Whether it was the contribution of the American Maltby or the French Boublil, the lyric "Christ, I am American! How could I fail to do good? / All I made was a mess, just like everyone else / In a place of mystery that I never once understood" is one of the best encapsulations of the American experience of thirty years ago that has ever been offered.

Curameng is new to Toby's but not to dinner theater. He impressed at West End in Virginia as Custus in Crazy for You last year and earlier at the Lazy Susan in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Finally, he gets a leading role and he makes the most of it, carrying his character from one scam to the next in a desperate and understandable scramble to survive against all odds. Most impressive is his ability to make the rapid patter lyrics of some of his songs appear to be coming right off the top of his head as if improvised on the spur of the moment in a never ending series of sales pitches. Sunday, on the other hand, is a veteran well known to Toby's regulars. His full, emotional voice, so effective in Ragtime, Jekyll & Hyde and other shows here as well as at other theaters in the region is well utilized in this production. The performance of Janine Gulisano is so strong it doesn't need an extra-theatrical connection to be impressive. But readers will be interested to know that there is one amazing such connection, for Ms. Gulisano is herself a bui doy, an orphan of Vietnamese and American parentage adopted by an American family at age six months and nursed back to health from a serious combination of malnutrition and respiratory distress. Today she sings with clarity, acts with emotion and gives the role of the mother of a bui doi determined to do what is right by her child great vividness. (That child was played very well at the performance we attended by young Lyle Knepprath.)

The production featuring these performances is a handsome one with a few very nice set pieces by a new designer for Toby's, Thomas Bumbluskas. His solution to the script's call for a helicopter for the flash back scene in Act II is very good given the constraints of this low-ceilinged theater in the round. Lighting designer Lynn Joslin's work is a bit distracting at times but comes through for the bigger emotional moments. The live musicians are augmented by an "OrchEXTRA," the new generation of computer assisted electronic synthesizers which can be quite effective, but here they are battling against the needs of a score intended for rich, full orchestral sound. Even with the OrchEXTRA they are unable to  approximate the richness of sound that William David Brohn achieved for the original production.

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil. Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographed by Ilona Kessel. Music Direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: Thomas Bumblauskas (set) Samn Huffer and Kendra Shapanus (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Steven Fleming (powerpoint design) Drew Dedrick (sound) David A. Hopkins (production stage manager) Jill Shullenbarger (stage manager). Cast: Charles Abel, Heather Marie Beck, Mary Kate Brouillet, Greg Burks, Dianna Collins, Ron Curameng, Felicia Curry, Ryan Dean, Micayla Diener, Jay Frisby, David Gregory, Janine Gulisano, John Guzman, Prince Havely, Samn Huffer, Iliana Inocencio, Jonathan Jackson, Rosemarie Kizeik, Lyle Knepprath or Danielle Cosette Chalecki or Rebecca Shan Luoma Hopson, Bill Krause, Maureen Lynch, Daniel L. McDonald, Madonna Marie Refugia, Michael Rostek, Chris Sizemore, Russell Sunday, Terry Sweeney.


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August 11 - September 26, 2004
Godspell

Reviewed August 21
Running time 2:35 - one intermission

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This high-energy, talented troupe does what they do to Godspell with verve and panache, exuding a sense of joy and pure enjoyment that is infectious. Note that the previous sentence discusses what they do to Godspell and not how they do Godspell. The difference is significant. Co-directors Toby Orenstein and Rob McQuay impose a concept on the play that transforms its locale from a school yard to a theater and its exploration of the scriptures into exploration of a script, and they have incorporated a good deal of topical humor and up-to-date references. The entire process is pursued with an innocence and insouciance that seems consistent with the underlying work even if it isn't, strictly speaking.

Storyline: A group of young people gather to explore the Biblical stories of the teachings of Jesus drawing from the Gospel According to St. Matthew (and other gospels). They act out many of the parables and, as their camaraderie strengthens through the collaboration, advance to enact the final hours of Christ ending with the crucifixion.

Co-Director Rob McQuay plays the Jesus role, acting as the director of the theater troupe in this concept. His assurance, his commanding presence and his powerful voice combine to make this a standout performance. In previous reviews we have not mentioned that McQuay is confined to a wheelchair because, frankly, we didn't think it relevant to our praise of his performance. However, in this instance, the staging of the final scene in which he is removed from his wheelchair for the crucifixion after which the entire cast carries his body from the room is such a powerful image and involved such trust in and from the ensemble, that it is an important aspect of the show.

That cast includes the always-impressive Russell Sunday as Judas/John the Baptist and a number of Toby regulars who again impress including Janine Guilisano, a very funny David James, energetic LC Harden, Jr. and Michael Kennedy who seems to be working about as hard as anyone can, not only when the focus is on him but when he's in the background, adding a movement or reaction to enhance the work of the others.

The addition of topical references and gags fits well with the concept of a theatrical troupe and even enhances the image of the troupe as enthusiastic youths exploring a serious subject, although the liberties taken with the original script are, again, significant. The theme of Dragnet accompanies one scene and Vince Guaraldi's famous music for the Charlie Brown Christmas Special another. There are even references to current television commercials. They have done a lot to Godspell but the strength of the original piece shines through.

Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Conceived and written by John-Michael Tebelak. Directed by Toby Orenstein and Rob McQuay. Choreography by Ray Hatch. Musical direction by Christopher Youstra. Design: Thomas Bumblauskas (set) Samn Huffer (costumes) David A. Hopkins (lights and stage manager) Drew Dedrick (sound). Cast: Felicia Curry, Janine Guilisano, LC Harden, Jr., David James, Michael Kenny, Shawn Kettering, Channez McQuay, Rob McQuay, Tess Rohan, Jill Shullenbarger, Russell Sunday.


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February 13 - August 8, 2004
Cats

Reviewed March 5
Running Time 2 hours 30 minutes
t
A Potomac Stages Pick for visual spectacle,
 memorable melodies and great dancing

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The show that ran longer than any other musical on Broadway and in London's West End, and which continues to tour the US some 23 years after its London premiere, has finally been licensed for productions in local theaters. Toby's is the first in the Region to tackle it. Her team fills the hall with fantasy with a cast of 26 talented singers and dancers strutting their feline stuff in costumes based on John Napier's famous originals, performing dances and songs very much in the original mode but revised for the confines of this in-the-round dinner theater, all to the sound of a larger orchestra than usually found in Toby's cramped elevated orchestra pit. The show has been tightened up just a touch, dispensing with "Growltiger's Last Stand" which always seemed superfluous in the Broadway version, using just the faux-opera segment here titled "Italian Aria."

Storyline:  Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of Jesus Christ Superstar, The Phantom of the Opera and a dozen other amazingly successful scores decided he could make a musical of the poems that T. S. Eliot published under the title "Old Posssum's Book of Practical Cats." The thinnest of storylines simply has a "tribe" of cats gather for their annual ball in a junk-filled yard. The highlight of the ball every year is the selection by their elderly leader of one of their own to be honored with a chance to go on to another of a cat's nine lives. Many of the cats sing or dance numbers designed to attract the attention of the elderly leader but he selects the one who is doing the least to attract attention and is in the most need of the renewal. 

For over twenty years there have been periodic attempts in the press to analyze both the show's source material and its structure in an effort to answer the question "What's it all about?" I doubt that many of the fascinated children, young adults or seniors in the audience this night cared what anyone said it was about. What it was about for them was fascination. Fascination over the specialness of cats as a breed. Fascination with the individual cats we meet in these particular two and a half hours. Fascination for the theatricality of it all, the unique visual impact of the show, the vigorous choreography in a confined space - - and let's not forget the score which is endlessly melodic and rhythmically energetic.

Perhaps in recognition of the fact that this is a major dance piece with every moment requiring not just staging but choreographing, Toby Orenstein shares direction credit with choreographer Ilona Kessell. This may be part of the secret of the success of the show in this new production. Musical director Dough Lawler, assisted by Chris Youstra and Greg Knauf, has done a fine job creating not just an acceptable orchestral sound with only 10 players (on Broadway there were 23) but a hall-filling ensemble work by the singing dancers enunciating clearly on the lyrics, getting full effect out of the wordplay and visual imagery in Eliot's poetry, and giving Mr. Lloyd Webber's music vibrant performances. The sound system handles the challenge of this big show quite well, which is crucial since this is an all-music musical with no dialogue scenes at all. 

The two central roles in the cast are those of the old leader of the cats, played by a rather youthful Michael Kenny, and the outsider ostracized by the group until her selection as the year's honored cat in the person of Janine Gulisano who demonstrates her great talent to belt out a big number. She has the big hit from the show, "Memory," and makes it the highlight it is supposed to be. 

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" by T. S. Eliot. Directed by Toby Orenstein and Ilona Kessell. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: Dave Eske (set) Jane Shafer (costumes based on the originals by John Napier) Larry Munsey (wigs) Roger Riggle (make-up) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jon Suchi, Drew Dedrick and Shawn Doyle (sound) Kirstine Christiansen (photography) David Hopkins (stage manager).  Cast: Charles Abel, Heather Marie Beck, Kurt Boehm, Debra Buonaccorsi, Keittra Colombel, Matt Conner, Felicia Curry, Cristina Flagg, Janine Gulisano, LC Harden, Jr. David James, Michael Kenny, Vincent Kirk, Darren McDonnell, Brian Jon Moran, Patrick O'Neill, Jen Quail, Tess Rohan, Sabra, Jenn Segawa, Renee Sambataro, Laurie Saylor, Danny Tippett.


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November 27, 2003 – February 8, 2004
Meet Me In St. Louis

Reviewed December 7
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes


Have you ever wondered who Louis was in the phrase “Meet Me In St. Louis, Louis”? Well, this production won’t shed any more light on the mystery than did the original MGM musical film or the attempt to turn it into a Broadway-style musical play. When the title song for a film or a musical makes no sense at all, can you expect the show to make sense? No. But you can expect it to be fun, to be bright, to be musical and to be diverting. All these things Toby’s version is - it just doesn’t make any more sense than the others.

Storyline: Are you kidding? An Irish song, a Halloween song, a Christmas song and an “I Love New York” song are hung on the structure of an Our Town spin off about the family of a businessman in St. Louis in 1903, who are distraught over the prospect of moving to New York when he lands a great career boost. Before it is over, he has decided to keep his family in Missouri where his older daughters have found young men of interest.

Most of the shows you see at Toby’s are directed by Toby. This one is directed by Carole Graham Lehan, who co-directed The Children of Eden here and directed The Sound of Music. She does a fine job with this holiday show and combines with Toby’s usual choreographer Ilona Kessell, to craft some delightful scenes - especially those that take place on the “ice” of the frozen pond in this ideal idyll of turn-of-the-twentieth-century middle-America at Christmas time. “The Skating Song” is fun but the triplet “A Raving Beauty” featuring Jeffrey A. Clise, Shawn Kettering and Janine Gulisano on in-line skates is even more fun.

The cast is loaded with bright, energetic, enthusiastic players, many of whom get at least one song in which to shine. David Bosley Reynolds belts out a strong “A Day In New York.” Jill Shullenbarger gets her three minutes in the limelight with “A Touch of the Irish.” The always satisfying David James kicks up his heels in the song “Banjos” which could have used a few more banjos in the orchestration. Even Robert Biedermann gets to vamp his way through a chorus of the title song as the elderly grandpa with a heart of gold.

The teenage couple at the heart of the evening are AK Brink who impressed as the young Phillis in Signature Theatre’s Follies, and Greg Etling who was so good as the younger brother in Toby’s Ragtime. Etling delivers a heart-felt “You Are for Loving” and Brink gets the two biggest hits of the package: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the lead line in the big chorus number of the show’s most famous number, “The Trolley Song.”

Book by Hugh Martin. Music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Directed by Carole Graham Lehan. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: Dave Eske (set) Samn Huffer (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Drew Dedrick (sound) Chris Christiansen (photography) David A. Hopkins (stage manager). Cast: Heather Marie Beck, Robert Biedermann, David Bosley-Reynolds, AK Brink, Mary Kate Brouillet, Jeffrey A. Clise, Felicia Curry, Paige Decker or Hannah Williams, Chantelle Dishon, Greg Etling, Katie Glass or Rachel Petti, Janine Gulisano, Lani Novak Howe, David James, Laura Kelley, Shawn Kettering, Brian Jon Moran, E. Lee Nicol, Jennifer Quail, Jill Shullenbarger, Terry Sweeney.


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September 9 – November 23, 2003
Ragtime

Reviewed October 2
Running time 3 hours 10 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick


Toby Orenstein gives Ragtime, the last great musical of the twentieth century, a great, heart touching, crowd pleasing production. The soaring score raises the low roof and Toby’s staging makes it seem that this is a show meant to be presented in the round. It wasn’t, but she and her choreographer, Ilona Kessell take the swirling, circling movement of the opening scene as the dominant feel for the entire evening and make it work, stopping well short of the point of being obvious but using it to make sure everyone on each of the four sides feels like they are right down front for a thrilling, sprawling musical.

Storyline: Based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel which threaded fictional characters and historical figures into a portrait of three interlocking worlds that existed within miles of each other in the New York City of 1906, the musical focuses on a black piano player who suffers mindless injustice, a Jewish immigrant who rises to success in the new world and a white upper class family whose fates are intertwined with both of them. Through it all, the figures of Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, the starlet Evelyn Nesbit and the escapist Houdini give a sense of time and historic import to the piece.

This is a musical that touches the heart on many levels. The score of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens is so full of gorgeous, emotional anthems that it would overload a less emotionally charged and narratively rich book. But they are the perfect match for Terrence McNally’s huge adaptation of Doctorow’s novel. A tremendous amount of the story is told through the songs rather than in dialogue between musical numbers. Ahrens’ ability to encapsulate a plot point in a very few words is astonishing. The true story of the shooting of Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, “the crime of the century,” takes exactly 25 words: “Then I went and married Harry Thaw. Eccentric millionaire. Oh! Oh! Harry’s a jealous man. Bang! Bang! That was the end of Stan. Boo hoo!” Ahrens ability to capture the essence of emotions is beautifully matched by Flaherty’s music which rocks gently to true ragtime, soars nearly effortlessly to emotional crescendos and lifts the spirit at key moments.

The biggest cast Toby has ever fielded on her stage has its greatest strengths in the most important roles. Tom McKenzie brings a resonant baritone and innate dignity to the role of the black piano player whose belief in “a country that lets a man like me own a car, raise a child, build a life with you” is destroyed by mindless bigotry. The sweet soprano voice of Eleasha Gamble, as the mother of that child, soars right along with him. Rob McQuay demonstrates a wide range of emotions as the Jewish immigrant trapped by the system that exploited the new arrivals, but whose skill, determination and luck carry him far. The key roles of the upper class white family are filled with very strong performers including Nancy Parrish Asendorf (mother) David Bosley-Reynolds (father) Andrew Horn (grandfather) and Greg Etling (younger brother).

The design of the show, drawing a great deal from the original but translating it into the intimate theater-in-the-round of Toby’s, makes it as eye-filling as it is rich sounding. Dave Eske designed a large number of set pieces that eloquently suggest the buildings and locations of the sprawling story that ranges from Ellis Island to the Morgan Library, New Rochelle to Harlem, and from a sweatshop in Lawrence Massachusetts to the beach at Atlantic City. Larry Munsey’s costumes complete the picture and carry color themes throughout with the white family in whites, the African-Americans in browns and the immigrants in grays. There are only four people in the elevated orchestra “pit” but the sound is full and rich because, in addition to piano, clarinet and trumpet parts which are performed live, a fourth player is operating a “virtual orchestra” device that delivers the rest of the lushly challenging score.

Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by Terrence McNally based on the book by E.L. Doctorow. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographer Ilona Kessel. Music Direction by Douglas Lawler and Christopher Youstra. Design: Dave Eske (set) Larry Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jason Wilson (sound) David A. Hopkins (stage manager). Cast: Nancy Asendorf, Heather Marie Beck, Alexis Berusch or Katelyn Glass, David Bosley-Reynolds, April Carter, Jeffrey A. Clise, Keittra Colombel, Felicia Curry, Shawn Doyle, Greg Etling, Cristina Flagg, Coleen M. Foley, Eleasha Gamble, Kim Garrison-Hopcraft, Janine Gulisano, LC Harden, Jr., Andrew Horn, Kenneth C. Jackson, Jr., David James, Leanto Jones, Michael Kenny, Shawn Kettering, Lanor Long, Daniel L. McDonald, Tom McKenzie, Channez McQuay, Rob McQuay, Ryan Patrick or Matthew Summers, Laurie Saylor, Jill Shullenbarger, Russell Sunday, Howard J. Turner, III, Jason Wilson.


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June 18 – August 31, 2003
Footloose

Reviewed June 27
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes

t
Potomac Stages Pick


Hand it to Toby and Ilona and Doug - they’ve done it again! This team of director, choreographer and musical director frequently manage to take a Broadway-style musical designed to come over the footlights like gangbusters and make it fit their intimate dinner theater. This time it is the high energy dance musical nicely adapted for the stage from the 1984 movie by veteran Broadway director Walter Bobbie (
Chicago) and the movie’s screenwriter/lyricist Dean Pitchford. Providing many new songs was Tom Snow who had written the music for one of the movie's hit songs, “Let’s Hear It For The Boy.” The movie was a big hit because the story was told straight out, the music was catchy and the dancing was fun to watch. The Broadway version was successful for the very same reasons and Toby’s team punches the same values to make their version just as much fun to watch.

Storyline: A teenager moves with his recently divorced mother from Chicago, where he loved to dance, to a small midwestern town where, out of respect for four teenagers who died in a car crash after a dance, all dancing has been outlawed. He tries to convince the town to change the law but is opposed by the local minister. Will the reverend see the error in his ways in time to salvage his relationship with his wife and with his daughter, who is attracted to the dance loving newcomer?

For the movie, that simple story was the frame on which to hang over half a dozen songs in a zippy country-pop-rock style. Songs like its title tune were written by Pitchford and Kenny Loggins, “Holding Out for a Hero” by Pitchford and Jim Steinman and “Almost Paradise” by Pitchford and Eric Carmen. All of these were songs the kids danced to. In order to make a stage musical, however, songs that reveal character and move the plot along were required. Now there are songs for the reverend (“Heaven Help Me”) the footloose boy (“I Can’t Stand Still” and “Dancing is Not A Crime”) as well as a heartfelt solo for the reverend’s wife (“Can You Find it in Your Heart?) a revealing duet for her to sing with the boy’s mother (“Learning to be Silent”) a comment song for the high school kids (“Somebody’s Eyes”) and even a comedy song for the boy’s new sidekick (“Mamma Says.”) They turn a movie with dancing into a full blown musical show. Music director Douglas Lawler does more than get a strong bass line out of his two-keyboards and rhythm section, he gets a room-filling vocal sound out of the chorus and the soloists both for the lively up-tempo numbers and for the more introspective ones.

Even with a teen-romance story, a generational-confrontation story and an anguished-father-learns-his-lesson story, dancing continues to be the primary activity on stage. Ilona Kessell takes obvious delight in the opportunities to choreograph in the unique format of theater in the round. These are high energy dances with a country-ish boot-scooting feel. She and director Toby Orenstein know how to make audiences on every side of the stage feel like they are at the front watching the action while avoiding the feeling that the cast is continuously revolving. The trick is motivating the turns (just watch as Orenstein has Lani Howe as the preacher’s wife sing toward the south exit where her husband has just stormed out, but then glance to the swing on the west side, turn to it as a memory of a happier time, walk over and sit in it and finish her song facing east . . . each move motivated by what was happening in her mind and her heart, not by the need to sing to a different side of the audience.)  

An element of Toby’s success here is, as it so often is, the ability to attract a cast well matched to the requirements of her shows. Here she has Stephen Gregory Smith, so marvelous earlier this year in Signature Theatre’s 110 In The Shade, as the dance deprived young man and he’s very good again. She’s got Margo Seibert, in her first starring role at Toby’s after a few smaller roles, who now kicks the already high energy level up a notch when she starts out the bouncy “Holding Out For a Hero.” Howe and Lynne R. Sigler make a great pair as the reverend’s wife/boy’s mother who learn not to be silent, and newcomer Nick Blaemire is quite strong as the side-kick, and will probably learn a great deal over the run as he figures out how to best sell the comic content of “Mamma Says.” The part of the reverend has been a difficult one to convert to a stage role. It was so delightfully smarmy in the hands of John Lithgow in the movie but requires a more sympathetic take in the stage version. Daniel L. McDonald does about as well with the part as we’ve ever seen and his voice is satisfyingly full.

Adapted by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie from the screenplay by Dean Pitchford. Lyrics by Dean Pitchford. Music by Tom Snow. Additional music by Eric Carmen, Sammy Hagar, Kenny Loggins, Jim Steinman. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Music direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: Dave Eske (set) Larry Munsey (costumes) David Hopkins (lights and stage manager) Jason Wilson (sound). Cast: Kate Arnold, Heather Marie Beck, Robert Biedermann, Nick Blaemire, Kurt Boehm, David Bosley-Reynolds, Greg Burks, Mark Bush, Seth Cohen, Matt Conner, Felicia Curry, Tina Marie DeSimone, Chantelle Dishon, Cristina Flagg, Lani (Chenille) Howe, Jonathan Jackson, David Jennings, Shawn Kettering, Daniel L. McDonald, Brian Jon Moran, Jenn Seqawa, Margo Seibert, Lynn R. Sigler, Stephen Gregory Smith, Terry Sweeney, Becca Vourvoulas.


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February 20 – June 15, 2003
Fiddler on the Roof

Reviewed March 12
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes


How can you love musical theater and not love Fiddler? Indeed, how can you love either theater or music and not love Fiddler? The 1964 musical has an emotionally affecting story and a host of interesting characters told in a dramatically arresting manner with a warm humor and is accompanied by a score of memorable songs. What is more, it has one of the top principal characters in the annals of musical theater: Tevye, the dairyman in Tsarist Russia who talks to God, loves his family, holds on to tradition as long as he possibly can and leads his family off to face the new world when the old one collapses.

Storyline: In a tiny Jewish enclave in 1905 Russia, Tevye lives in poverty with his wife and five daughters. Without dowries, how will he get them husbands? When a wealthy local widower asks for his eldest daughter’s hand he arranges a marriage but finds that she prefers to wed a penniless tailor. Tevye bends a bit and allows her her wish. When his second daughter falls in love with a penniless revolutionary and wants to follow him into exile in Siberia without his permission but with his blessing, Tevye bends further and allows her her wish. But when his third daughter falls in love with a Russian and wants to wed outside their faith he simply can’t bend that far. “If I try to bend that far, I will break.” The anti-semetic furor that accompanied the end of the Tsarist regime overtakes the entire enclave and Tevye and all his neighbors are forced to leave their homes.

The appeal of the short stories of Tevye’s life written by Sholem Aleichem is that they find the warmth of human affection and the miracle of human resiliency within such trying times. The appeal of the play that Arnold Perl wrote based on those stories is that he found a way to structure bits and pieces from many stories into a single, dramatically engrossing narrative. The appeal of the musical that drew off these stories and this play is that it not only retained its source material’s glory, it enhanced it with a score that was a perfect match – “If I Were A Rich Man,” “Matchmaker,” “Miracle of Miracles,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Far From The Home I Love.” No show is perfect and Fiddler does have a one-dimensional character in Tevye’s wife Golde and a number of simplistic stereotypes. But it has so many marvelous elements it seems churlish to point these out.

Toby Orenstein’s directing uses the theater-in-the-round stage beautifully, emphasizing the element of community and the comfort of family. Her “Sabath Prayer” is a thing of beauty with the family at the center stage table surrounded by other families at the entrance passageways creating a community, itself surrounded by a dusk sky with stars just beginning to come out. Lovely! Terry Sweeney and Tina DeSimone’s dances are full of energy, release and joy. Together they create a clear and truly funny dream sequence. At the other extreme was the execution of the sound design which, at least on the night we attended, gave the live musician’s work a mechanical feel which blocked much of the singing while the inconsistent amplification of the cast created voids and silences where there should have been sighs or laughs.

Many of those laughs and not a few of the sighs came as a result of the performance of David Bosley-Reynolds as Tevye. His chats with his maker were real conversations in his mind which made them work well. The joy of his love for his daughters comes through as strongly as does his pain at the disintegration of his world. He and Chan McQuay as his wife do a lovely “Do You Love Me” with the gentlest of gesture at the end. He is younger than many who are known for the part but Tevye should really be in his forties so his appearance makes sense.

Book by Joseph Stein. Music by Jerry Bock. Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Choreography by Terry Sweeney and Tina DeSimone. Design: Dave Eske (set) Judy Holland-Geary (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jason Wilson (sound) David A. Hopkins (stage manager). Cast: David Bosley-Reynolds, Chan McQuay, Tina DeSimone, Debra Buonaccorsi, Risa Binder, Lynn R. Sigler, David James, Russell Sunday, Andrew Horn, Robert Biederman, Itzy Friedman, Adam Grabau, Dan McDonald, Dallas Munger, Heather Marie Beck, E. Lee Nicol, Jeffrey S. Bailey, Vicki Winter, Melynda Burdette, Jeffrey A. Clise, Terry Sweeney, Stephanie Haaser or Renee Monico, Sara Branzelle or Renee Sambataro.


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November 21, 2002 – February 16, 2003
Annie Get Your Gun

Reviewed December 6
Running time 2 hours 30 Minutes
t
Potomac Stages Pick


Whether a reflection of Toby Orenstein’s personal commitment to the traditions of the musical theater, or a result of the dictates of the licensing company for this classic musical, it is a pleasure to report that the show you can see at Toby’s Dinner Theater uses the original story and script rather than the poorly updated revision used for the recent revival. It sure is good to see the old, tightly constructed, logically consistent and just pure fun version giving audiences so much pleasure.

Storyline: The star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Sharpshooter Frank Butler, meets and falls for his match, the even sharper shooting Annie Oakley. But he can’t stand taking second place to a woman who can out shoot him. Their careers finally merge and their romance wins out in the end – but not before the war of egos runs its course through such fabulous Irving Berlin songs as "There’s No Business Like Show Business," "I Got the Sun in the Morning (and the Moon at night)," "I Got Lost In His Arms," "The Girl That I Marry," "They Say It’s Wonderful," "Moonshine Lullaby" and the ultimate lovers spat song "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)."

Toby doesn’t use all of the original 1946 material. The subplot of Butler’s assistant’s sister’s boyfriend is left out entirely along with their songs "I’ll Share It All with You" and "Who Do You Love, I Hope." This isn’t a great shame, however, and even the original creative team dropped the material for a revival in 1966. Instead, the then-new Berlin song "An Old Fashioned Wedding" was inserted for Annie and Frank. It is also not a shame that the almost-never-used-anymore "I’m an Indian Too" with its dismissive stereotyping of the Sioux and other native American tribes is absent from this production. What is a shame is the lack of an overture to introduce this splendid score to a new audience. The original had a fabulous overture covering four of the strongest melodies in the show. Toby lists orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett but the sound emanating from Douglas Lawler’s piano and keyboard dominated band is nothing like that master’s work. Still, they lay down a solid support for the singing and dancing of the cast.

Meaghan Kyle nails the role of tomboy Annie Oakley who wants to learn to read and become a lady for handsome Frank Butler but who can’t quite shake her sense of self worth enough to buckle under to his macho image. That is not to say she hits every note or pulls off every gag. Just that she absolutely is Annie Oakley out there – not some actress trying to play Annie Oakley. Her Frank Butler is Russell Sunday who has often held this stage in thrall. He is thoroughly satisfying this time out, but it remains Annie’s show. The chemistry between the two works well and, when they face off for "Anything You Can Do" the competition is a kick.

The design team at Toby’s continues to do impressive work even as new designers join in and others seem to switch duties. The set designed by Peter Hengen includes a delightful solution to the problem of creating a railroad car for a production played in the round and Larry Munsey clothes the cast in a wide variety of western wear. David A. Hopkins’ tight lighting effects are efficient and Jason Wilson again provides effective miking and amplification. But most notable is, as it often is at Toby’s, the contribution of choreographer Ilona Kassell. She gets the ensemble cavorting in stage filling numbers.

Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreograhped by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: Pete Hengen (set) Larry Munsey (costumes) David A. Hopkins (lights) Jason Wilson (sound). Cast: Meaghan Kyle, Russell Sunday, Terry Sweeney, Chan McQuay, Robert Biedermann, Dallas Munger, David James, David Bosley-Reynolds and company.


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August 29 – November 17, 2002
Jekyll and Hyde

Reviewed September 22
Running time 2 hours 35 minutes
t
Potomac Stages Pick


When Toby’s gets something right, they really get it right. This production of the slightly problematic musical that has achieved nearly cult status among its passionate fan base but criticism for its craft is remarkable in its attention to detail. Director Toby Orenstein has been able to solve many of the problems that bothered the critics while preserving all the strengths that attracted legions of "Jekies" to support a four year run on Broadway, two national tours and now regional and local productions of widely varying quality. Calling all "Jekies" (and everyone else): Get thee to Columbia while this show is running!

Storyline: This musical based on Robert Louis Stevenson's novel is set in London in 1888 (the same year Jack the Ripper started his crime spree). Dr. Henry Jekyll seeks a cure for the insanity that has afflicted his father by developing a formula which can separate the good from the evil in a person. He experiments on himself, freeing his evil side in the person of Edward Hyde. Hyde wrecks havoc among both sides of London’s society, killing the upper class hypocrites who opposed the good doctor’s research and victimizing a prostitute from a lower class dive. All this transpires as the good doctor’s wedding date draws nearer and his fiancé provides understanding support. But who will show up for the wedding, Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

The score by Frank Wildhorn is lush and lovely with soaring melodies and strong rhythms that merge the sound of popular music and show tunes with a gothic flair. The big number for Dr. Jekyll is "This Is The Moment," a number that seems to have been sung or played for every Olympic event, ice skating competition and sporting championship in recent years. The book and lyrics are by Leslie Bricusse. His lyrics are extremely well served in this production as Toby gets very clear enunciation from soloists and chorus alike so that the audience can savor even such tricky constructions as "Nearly everyone you see – like him an’ her an’ you an’ me – pretends to be a pillar of society – a model of propriety, sobriety, an’ piety, whose never even heard of notoriety." That’s a mouthful for a chorus of twenty to get across clearly.

Toby gets two extremely strong performances in the two most important roles. Russell Sunday handles the dual role of doctor and demon with fine full voice, a very high energy level and a number of subtle touches that make the part work well. Having seen them all, we can say that Sunday is better than some who tackled the tricky role on Broadway. His transformations from one persona to the other are frighteningly effective. In the role of the prostitute who dreams of starting "A New Life," Janine Gulisano sings up a storm and also fills in some of the rough edges of the script with nice touches. The use of the song "Bring On the Men" rather than "Good and Evil" for her first appearance nicely establishes her as an earthier version of the character than had been created on Broadway. Toby also gets the most out of many of the smaller roles, having actors doubling up where necessary. Robert Biedermann is marvelous as an insane patient in an early scene and then smoothly satisfying as the Doctor’s manservant later on.

The theater pulled out all the stops when it came to staging this show. They use a more complex set than they have for recent shows, the costuming is more richly detailed and the lighting is more active and spectacular, even using remotely focusable lights. Toby avoids any temptation to let the effects run away with the show. Instead, she uses these tools to tell the story clearly. She brought in fight choreographer E. Lorraine Ressegger to stage the mayhem and murders the evil Mr. Hyde performs and they are frighteningly effective. Doug Lawler and Chris Youstra are both listed as Musical Directors and they must share credit for the excellent vocal work although their ten piece orchestra sounds a bit thin.

Music by Frank Wildhorn. Book and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Fight Choreography by E. Lorraine Ressegger. Design: Dave Eske (set) Judy Holland-Geary (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) David Hopkins (sound) Chris Christiansen (photo). Russell Sunday, Janine Gulisano, Lonny Smith, David Bosley-Reynolds, Robert Biedermann, Dallas D. Munger, Adrienne Athanos, Andrew Horn, Jeffrey S. Bailey, Richard Evans, Michael Kenny, Laurie Saylor, Matt Conner, Jeffrey A. Clise.


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June 6 – August 25, 2002
The Jazz Singer

Reviewed June 16
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes


Taste in theater has changed -- a play that was very much of its time back in the nineteen-twenties and which was made into the very first singing/talking movie, launching the "talkies," has now been made into a musical that pays homage to that time and the legends of show business. It is, as its source material was, highly melodramatic and very simplistic – but, so long as it isn’t taken too seriously, it provides an enjoyable jumping off point for a musical filled with familiar melodies and a few familiar episodes.

Storyline: the young son of a cantor has dreams of stardom on the stage, but his father wants him to follow in the time honored family tradition, singing only in the synagogue. When his father forbids the singing of the dreaded "jazz" music, the youngster runs away from home and climbs the show business ladder to success. On the very night of his scheduled opening as the star of his very first Broadway show, his family calls for him to come home to sing the service for Yom Kippur in the place of his father who is on his death bed. What is a young singer to do?

The tale began as a short story inspired in part by the story of Al Jolson, himself the son of a cantor who ran away from his Washington DC home to go into show business. The story was adapted into a play and then later a 1927 film starring that same Al Jolson. It was supposed to be a typical silent movie with the added feature of a few songs using the new Warner Brothers’ technology of recorded sound synchronized with a movie. But Jolson, as impulsively enthusiastic as ever, ad libbed the now famous line "wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!" and then singing a chorus of "Toot, Toot, Tootsie!" That scene is partially recreated, right down to the brown suit Jolson wore singing at the piano to his mother in this modern staging of the story.

Toby Orenstein has re-worked the material to streamline the storytelling, creating a fast paced piece of simplified plot festooned with some fifteen period songs, many of them associated with Al Jolson through his career – "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody," "Swanee," "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" and, of course "Toot, Toot, Tootsie!" That streamlining makes the bright pace of the piece possible at the expense of some of the set up for the hero's actions. As it is, the young boy runs away from home after about two and a half sentences of parental guidance and then ages fourteen years in two scenes. The ending all but skips over any consequences he would suffer from his final choice. But the events in between move along briskly with colorful costumes, energetic dances, light comedy, a romance and a rise-to-stardom story.

Playing the role of the young man is Toby’s regular Larry Munsey. He is smoothly competent but lacks the magnetic charisma that let Jolson ignite an audience. Orenstein has freed him of the embarrassingly dated Jolson trademark of singing in black face makeup. He’s in fine voice for the loud, belting portions of the score. He’s supported by a large cast including some strong performers like A. K. Brink as his leading lady, Itzy Friedman and Anita O’Leary as his father’s neighbors, David James as his best friend, Richard Evans as his producer, Shawn Kettering as the stage manager and most particularly David B. Reynolds and Lynne R. Sigler as his parents. They are all grandly supported by Music Director Douglas Lawler’s solid sounding pit band which was conducted by Greg Knauf at the performance we reviewed.

Written by Michael Tilford based on the play by Samson Raphaelson. Original music and lyrics by Tom Alonso with period music by various artists. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: Fisher Theatrical (set) Judy Holland Geary (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jason Wilson (sound). Cast: Larry Munsey, A. K. Brink, David B. Reynolds, Lynne R. Sigler, Itzy Friedman, Anita O’Leary, David James, Richard Evans, Shawn Kettering, Eric Haaser, Jacob Perry, Jeffrey Bailey, Jeff Blackwood, John Rose, Douglas Lawler, Greg Knauf, Tina DeSimone, Chantelle Dishon, Meghan Touey, Laurie Saylor, Jenn Segawa, Jenny Scanlin, Lee Nicol.


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February 21 – June 2, 2002
The Wizard of Oz

Reviewed March 1
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes


Toby takes her audience down the Yellow Brick Road with a production that faithfully follows the material from the movie but lacks some of the charm and magic of that unduplicatable 1939 concoction. Aimed at an audience of families with their children, the evening is a bit long with dinner, a fairly long show and a lengthy intermission. The doors open at 6 but the show starts at 8:15 and the curtain calls don’t come until 11.

Storyline: The story, structure and songs of the MGM movie – complete with live Toto – is transferred to the stage. Dorothy’s flight over the rainbow to Munchkin Land, her trip along the Yellow Brick Road with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion and her battle with the Wicked Witch of the West are all included as are the songs from the movie including one, "The Jitterbug," rescued from the cutting room floor.

Judy Garland was almost too old to pull off the role of Dorothy when they made the movie. Here the casting of A K Brink as Dorothy pushes the age line even further. She was last seen here as the grownup secretary to Daddy Warbucks in Annie and the grownup reporter in Damn Yankees. She handles it well, however, with a clear and clean rendition of "Over the Rainbow" and straight, uncomplicated delivery of all the classic lines from "I don’t think we’re in Kansas, Toto" to "There’s no place like home." Along the Road she picks up David James, a fine floppy, flexible Scarecrow, Larry Munsey, a touching Tinman and David Reynolds, a comically cowering Cowardly Lion.

There are a few notable performances in smaller roles. Robert Biedermann is delightfully befuddled and warmly generous as the Wizard and Michael Omohundro scamps about brightly as the Gatekeeper. His big number, which opens Act II, is a highlight as he leads Dorothy and her trio into the Emerald City. But the real highlight comes in Act I when Dorothy first arrives in Munchkin Land. The movie used persons of short stature for the munchkins. Some productions have used children. Toby’s approach is different and it is the best special effect in the show.

Not all of the rest of the special effects are very special. The spinning house that is the very first effect and the hot air balloon that is the last are particularly ineffective. But the use of a yellow brick-patterned spotlight to lead Dorothy and her friends down the "yellow brick road" is an elegantly simple solution to the challenge of staging the scene, and the melting of the Wicked Witch of the West is nicely done indeed. And then there is the magic of Doug Lawler’s live musicians that adds to the excitement of live theater.

Adapted by John Kane. Songs by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. Backround music by Herbert Stothart. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Music direction by Douglas Lawler. Design: David Eske (set) Larry Munsey (costumes) Lynn Joslin (lights) Jason Wilson (sound.) Principal cast: A K Brink, Larry Munsey, David James, David Reynolds, Jill Shullenbarger, Robert Biedermann, Deborah Bonacorsi, Michael Omohundro.


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December 1, 2001 - February 17, 2002
Forever Plaid
Playing in rep with Annie (review below)

Reviewed January 2
Running time 1 hour 35 minutes


A slight plot holds together what is essentially a Las Vegas style lounge show featuring one very talented pianist, four talented vocalists and thirty top forty songs in ninety minutes. With the energy generated by a full house, this can be a fun show. So you might want to ask the box office how the sales are going the night you are thinking of attending. If you have a choice between nights, chose the one that is more heavily booked.

Storyline: The four young members of "The Plaids," an early 60’s harmony quartet, which was already a bit behind the times as first Elvis, and then the Beatles, have made the work of the Four Freshmen and the Modernaires seem old fashioned, were killed in a traffic accident on their way to their first big break. They return for one night only due to "celestial intervention" and have the opportunity to perform their act one last time.

Each of the four "Plaids" are in pretty fine voice, getting some fine individual moments in the spotlight. As a "harmony group" they rarely combine in the unique blend that was the hallmark of such groups and which was the goal these "kids" had set for themselves when they were alive. The finale is set up by Ernie Jewell as "Frankie" as he exhorts his pals to hit "that magic note … hold it forever … then cut off as one." The show seems to go in fits and starts under the direction of Bobby Smith whose pacing of the dialogue segments repeatedly kills the momentum created by the musical numbers.

Those musical numbers are what the show is all about and there are many melodies that will stir memories. From Stephen Smith’s second chorus emoting in "Cry" to John Rose’s deep base in "16 Tons" backed by Gary Marshall Dieter’s very funny accompaniment on a breath-powered keyboard, to the close harmony of "Love is a Many Splendored Thing," "Three Coins in the Fountain" and "Rags to Riches" the show dips into the stock of 1950’s melodies. Douglas Lawler provides rich piano-bar style piano support, turning in a fine underpinning for "Catch a Falling Star."

At Toby’s scenery is usually designed to roll or slide on and off with a minimum of distraction or interruption. Forever Plaid is performed on a large platform, which the stage crew must assemble after the dinner buffet is removed. What with alignment pins and electrical connections, construction takes so long that the audience tires of watching long before the show begins. Once the show is underway, the embedded lights in the platform don’t seem to add much to the setting.

Written by Stuart Ross. Directed and staged by Bobby Smith. Musical director Douglas Lawler. Arrangements by James Raitt. Design: Coleen Foley (lights) and Jason Wilson (sound.) Cast: Ernie Jewell, Stephen L. Smith, Gary Marshall Dieter, John Andrew Rose.


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November 21, 2001  – February 17, 2002
Annie

Reviewed December 6
Running time  2 hours 35 minutes


This spirited production moves briskly along, taking the audience of adults and children for an entertaining ride. It is clearly a show intended for a house full of families. Director Toby Orenstein knows that she can lose the attention of children if things get slow and once lost they can be hard to win back. With the help of choreographer Ilona Kessell’s lively dances and a brassy orchestra conducted by Doug Lawler, she keeps everyone’s attention focused on the action. Of course, it helps to have songs this good and a story that works this well.

Storyline: The adventures of the comic strip character Little Orphan Annie and her dog Sandy. Oliver Warbucks, the richest single man in the wold, sends his secretary to Miss Hannigan’s orphanage to select one waif to spend the holidays in his mansion. She picks out Annie who wins his heart. She believes she isn’t an orphan and that her parents will come to get her eventually so Warbucks, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt and the entire Federal Government tries to find her folks, only to discover that they died when she was an infant. So, of course, Warbucks adopts Annie.

Key to any success with this show is finding a young girl who can belt out songs like "Tomorrow," bounce around the stage with appeal and charm the heck out of the crowd while winning the heart of the rich old guy. Orenstein has Gabriella DeLuca and Samantha Glass alternating in the role, and DeLuca, who performed at press night, fits the bill. Cute as a button and confident as all get out on stage, she sells her songs and her scenes with panache. In the part of Oliver Warbucks is David Reynolds, who is a strong enough stage presence and in good enough voice to play against kids and a dog and not get all his scenes stolen from him. His progression from selfish rich man to soft-hearted father-figure is smooth and believable and he makes the audience ache over his willingness to sacrifice his own dream for Annie’s well being when it appears her parents have been found. It makes the plot reversal at the end all the more appealing.

The kids are all chipper and charming, especially a four-year-old bundle of charisma named Jazzy Williams in the role of the youngest of the orphans who makes the "Hard Knock Life" a kick. Among the grownups in the cast, the standout is David James as the conniving con man "Rooster" who struts his stuff down "Easy Street." Lynne Sigler’s Miss Hannigan is as mean and selfish as any comic villain who ever sung about hating "Little Girls." A nicely smarmy Richard Evans warbles "You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" and both Robert Biedermann as FDR and other small parts and Andrew Horn as the butler have numerous little bits that flesh out the piece nicely. For example, Biederman as a pretzel salesman reacts marvelously to Warbucks’ large tip and Horn has a delighted little jump when given good news. It is details like this that Orenstein uses to keep the show interesting at many levels and keep the attention of old and young.

"Annie’s" national tour played Wolf Trap last year and the Warner Theater the year before and it was a bit more polished and smooth but it wasn’t quite as much fun as this version. This "Annie" is a real charmer.

Music by Charles Strouse. Lyrics by Martin Charnin. Book by Thomas Meehan. Directed by Toby Orenstein. Choreography by Ilona Kessell. Musical direction by Greg Knauf. Design: Fisher Theatrical (set) Larry Munsey (costumes) Coleen M. Foley (lights) Jason Wilson (sound.) Cast: Gabriella DeLuca (or Samantha Glass), David Reynolds, Lynne Sigler, David James, Carla Della Torre, AK Brink, Andrew Horn, Victoria Winter, Robert Biedermann, Richard Evans, Shawn Kettering and Jazzy Williams or Katelyn Glass, Sarah Branzelle or Dianna Kelley, Gabrielle Diener or Elizabeth Haaser, Julie Apple or Jennifer Gold, Corrine Ung or Brynn Williams, Noelle Collison or Kassidy Sharpe.


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September 7 - November 18, 2001
Carousel

Reviewed September 16


The landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical set in 1873 New England, takes a tragic story and makes it glowingly optimistic through the combination of glorious music, lyrics that illuminate inner thoughts, a spirituality that infuses the tragic end of the hero’s life with a message of continuity and the power of love. It is a gorgeous show and Toby’s gives it a fine production.

Storyline: A carousel barker marries a mill worker and they have a daughter. He’s immature and insecure and dies in an ill-fated robbery attempt having done nothing to gain entrance into heaven. He’s given a second chance and returns to earth for just one day.

It is well sung and well acted by all of the principals – Siobhan Kolker as the young mill worker who falls in love with the barker for the Carousel in the park, Deboara Bonacorsi as her girlfriend who has a beaux of her own, John Scheeler as that beaux who is a fisherman dreaming of building a fleet of his own and Adrienne Athanas as the keeper of the girl’s boarding house who comforts the grieving with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Larry Munsey stepped in to the role of the carousel barker when Russell Sunday broke his ankle. He gave a full-voiced, swaggering performance.

Dance is a much more important feature of “Carousel” than it is in most musicals. The opening isn’t an overture – it is “The Carousel Waltz” in which the relationships of all the key characters are revealed before a single word is spoken or sung This production is acceptably danced until Act II when Lauren Sambataro and Patrick Wenning give an almost show-stopping ballet using Ilona Kessell’s crystal choreography building on the structure of Agnes De Mille’s legendary original.

With a capable chorus, fine costuming and functional set and lighting design the only real disappointment of the show is the sound of the orchestra. Using only five players, Musical Director Greg Knauf relies heavily on electronic keyboards that give the entire score the sound of a computer generated “wav” file. This is particularly sad for a score that has so much glorious music – a score Richard Rodgers said was “more satisfying than any I’ve ever written.” That’s quite something coming from the man who wrote “The King and I,” “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music.”

“Carousel” is a staple of the American musical theater. When it is done well it is a thrill. Toby’s does it well.