Theater sets stage for fun, inspiration

Toby's "Ben Carson" offers hope to youths

January 21, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Most school field trip excursions end up at a museum, a zoo or an aquarium.

Bor-ring.

Instead, try going to a theater and watching a live performance about a young man who rises from poverty to become a world-renowned doctor now, that's interesting.

Just ask 13-year-old Justin Hughes, an eighth-grader at West Baltimore Middle School and one of 300 pupils who filled Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia yesterday to see "Ben Carson, M.D.," a fast-paced hourlong play for children based on the life of the African-American pediatric neurosurgeon who lives in West Friendship.

"I thought it was very exciting," Justin said after the show. "Not too many of our field trips are as dramatic as this, but I learned as much from this as I have anywhere else. I've heard of this guy [Carson] maybe one time in my life, but I'm very interested in his life now. He sounds cool."

Three or four times a week since early January, hundreds of giggling, anxious elementary, middle and high school students arrive by bus at Toby's Dinner Theatre to experience live theater.

By the time "Ben Carson, M.D." moves to another performing arts center in mid-February, about 6,600 people will have seen it at Toby's.

Adults are welcome to attend each show, but performances that are part of Toby's Youth Theatre are 100 percent child-friendly.

The nonprofit children's theater company puts on dramatic productions for youths of all ages at one of the region's most acclaimed dinner theaters.

Founded by Toby Orenstein, Toby's Youth Theatre allows professional dramatic companies such as Theatrical Arts Productions (which produced the "Ben Carson" show) to use the dinner theater venue for daytime performances.

In "Ben Carson, M.D." -- written five years ago by Carole Graham Lehan and adapted from two books written by Carson and author Cecil Murphy -- five professional actors portray 50 characters in the show.

This production -- which will be presented at Montgomery College in Rockville after its Toby's run -- and "Number the Stars," a play about the rescue of Danish Jews during World War II, are put on by Theatrical Arts Productions, a producing arm of Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts Inc. The nonprofit group seeks to develop and promote children and young adults in drama, dance and music.

Toby's Youth Theatre also has sponsored the shows "Schoolhouse Rock Live!" and "Goldilocks and the Three Billy Pigs Gruff." Later this year, "Winnie the Pooh" will be performed.

Margie Tompros, an actress who portrays 16 characters in "Ben Carson" and has been performing in the play as part of Theatrical Arts Productions for five years, said children are interesting -- and challenging -- to actors.

"Kids are terribly honest, and keeping their attention is sometimes really difficult," Tompros said while sitting on a table outside the theater. "You can never give up the energy the whole time. You have to be in the moment, so it's excellent training for an actor in that way."

Orenstein started Toby's Youth Theatre to entertain and educate children in a creative way.

"All of the shows that we have here are very value-oriented," Orenstein said.

"They're usually shows about the kind of choices people have to make in order to be successful or good people. Every show for the children teaches them something."

Toba Barth, Theatrical Arts Productions' director of education, said the story of Dr. Ben Carson was chosen because "the real Ben Carson is such an inspiration to young people everywhere."

After performances, students are invited to quiz actors and to talk about what they learned.

Stephanie Osborne, 12, a seventh-grader at St. John the Baptist School in Silver Spring, said, her class would have only a short time to really think about the play.

"As soon as we get back to school," she said, "we'll have to write a whole essay about the play. I'd better think about it on the bus."

Performances of "Ben Carson, M.D." at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia will run through Feb. 8. Ticket prices are $6.50 per person for groups of 20 or more; $3.50 for students enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. Individuals pay $7.50. Reservations and information: 410-992-7853.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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