At Toby's Dinner Theatre, production is main course

Proprietor's love of art shows in her plays

April 04, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Toby Orenstein bounds into the foyer of her theater, her gait purposeful, her gaze straightforward and friendly, and her trademark blond bowl-cut hairdo swinging easily.

After 20 years and thousands of performances at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Orenstein stands at the pinnacle of her long career as one of the region's most talked about and colorful theatrical talents.

Thanks in part to her artistic sensibilities, energy and enthusiasm, the 61-year-old Orenstein and her theater company have received four Helen Hayes Award nominations for this season's productions of "West Side Story," "Hot Nostalgia II" and "Children of Eden."

This season is the fourth that Toby's has been nominated for numerous Hayes awards, Washington's answer to Broadway's Tony Awards. Two years ago, actor David James won one for his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in Toby's production of "The Wizard of Oz" -- the first time an actor appearing in dinner theater had won the coveted prize.

As Howard County's only dinner theater, Toby's pioneered its rare blend of show-biz and top-notch entertainment to become one of the region's most respected theater companies.

Toby's has brought musicals, original drama and well-known revues to Howard County, and through it all Orenstein has managed to win over those who considered dinner theater little more than schlock for bored suburban couch potatoes.

"I cannot tell you how many times someone will say to me, `I've never been to a dinner theater, I just wouldn't go to a dinner theater, but someone told me about this show and I am just blown away by what I've seen,' " Orenstein says excitedly. "My mission in life is to be innovative and bring something different to the community. And I think it's working."

Valerie Costantini, founder and artistic director of Columbia's Rep Stage, collaborated with Orenstein on a production of "Falsettos" in 1994. She calls Orenstein "a really fabulous woman. As a rule, I'm not a big fan of dinner theater, but I can say categorically that Toby's a true artist. She's not just trying to give you a cute little show and a meal."

Orenstein is "aiming for art, and she does a really good job of it. And she's a great person to work with," Costantini says.

"My whole mission was to bring diversity to a dinner theater, to do things from Sondheim to Rodgers and Hammerstein -- to not just do the light musical comedy but also to get into some serious contemporary musicals as well," Orenstein says.

"People see dinner theater as not as professional and that's just not true," she adds. "There's good and bad dinner theater. Certainly in the early days, people labeled it as not relevant in the theater scene, and that's got to stop."

Toby's is one of at least 12 dinner theaters in the Baltimore-Washington region. Its increasing popularity, Orenstein says, can be attributed to providing an evening of quality entertainment and a good meal for a reasonable price.

Orenstein says she could just as easily rent a small theater space in Baltimore or Washington, produce the same show as one that appeared at Toby's, and the response would be different.

"We always think that if something is in our back yard, how can it be great?" she says. "We have to travel to see great."

Orenstein says she prefers "the dark musicals, ones that make you think and ones that leave you thinking after the performance."

But, "If you're middle America and you have a choice between seeing `Sweeney Todd,' which is a very dark Sondheim show, or `Singin' in the Rain,' which would you choose? That's the reality when you bring a group of 50 senior citizens to a show," she says.

Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Orenstein attended the famed High School for the Performing Arts and graduated from Columbia University.

She and her economist husband, Harold, moved to Howard County in 1959. "I came of age in New York City in the 1950s, which was the era of Lerner and Lowe and so many of the great musicals. When I got here [to Howard County], it was really a cultural wasteland," Orenstein says. "I said to my husband, `Yuck! What did you bring me to!' "

But Columbia (which Orenstein thinks of as "upper-middle America") has changed, and Toby's Dinner Theatre is part of the region's cultural firmament.

Orenstein taught acting at Catholic University and raised her two children -- Jeffrey, a partner in Goren, Wolff, Orenstein; and Mindy, a guidance counselor at River Hill High School. She has two grandsons.

Toby's Dinner Theatre was started in December 1979 with partial investment from a small Richmond, Va., company, which Orenstein bought out in 1989. She is now sole owner of the theater.

Orenstein is also proud of her work with the Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts, which she founded 30 years ago.

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