- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

In the dark, Al Leon was beaming, a big smile on his face.
On stage, Jazzy Williams, 4? and playing the littlest orphan in "Annie," once again stomped on Miss Hannigan's foot. Miss Hannigan howled. So did Mr. Leon's six grandchildren, ages 8 to 18, sitting at the table with him, napkins rolled up, the dinner plates gone.
It was the day after Thanksgiving at Toby's Dinner Theater in Columbia, Md., and Mr. Leon and his grandchildren five girls and a boy were having a festive time of it. Maybe Mr. Leon, a retired publisher's representative and former school teacher from Potomac, was one of the few people in the house who laughed at a Harpo Marx joke, but the youngsters got everything else.
"The costumes were the best," said granddaughter Alana Newberger, 18. "It was soo funny," said Michelle Leon, 10.
"Everything," said grandson Garrett Leon, 7, at intermission, as he attacked a hot fudge sundae. "I liked everything."
"This is the kind of thing that keeps me young," said Mr. Leon, who has been living with a pacemaker for the last 15 years.
You'll never see a hot fudge sundae at the Shakespeare Theater or the Kennedy Center, or be singled out because it's your birthday by the pre-show emcee. Nor will there be a waiter like Jeffrey Shankle at the West End Dinner Theater in Alexandria, who after serving you a braised beef entree made from the recipe of the general manager's mom, shows up on stage in "A Christmas Carol" as Scrooge's nephew Fred.
Right there at the table with Mr. Leon and his grandchildren in the waiters who end up on stage you have the charm and the dilemma of dinner theater, not just at Toby's or the West End Dinner Theater, but dinner theaters everywhere. Dinner theater is where you go with the whole family for a night out in one place while taking in a show, more often than not a classic American musical comedy.
But to theater people, dinner theater says Joey Wallen, a man of many hats at the West End is the "ugly stepchild of the theater world."


Toby Orenstein, the Toby of Toby's Dinner Theater, who has directed just about every show there since 1979, recognizes the mocking cliches that surround dinner theater, but she bristles at the notion that the cliches might be true.
"Dinner theater is a legitimate part of the theater world," she says. "It's unique and has its own traditions and ways of operating. It occupies a niche. But the people in it are every bit as professional, dedicated, and most important, passionate, about their work."
Plus, the results, more than once a while, are up to the standards of the best theater in the region, witness the recent slew of Helen Hayes Award nominations garnered by Toby's and West End in the resident musical categories. And it's worth mentioning that dinner theaters, even as they dwindle in number, remain an important home and venue for theater professionals from actors and performers to directors, designers, choreographers and costumers.
"Ed Norton, you know, the movie star, when he was a youngster, worked a lot for me," Ms. Orenstein will tell you. "He was in 'Pippin.' Megan Lawrence is in 'Urine Town' in New York now."
Robin Baxter, a classic singer, actress and hoofer with personality and energy to spare, who was a fixture in the early years of "Shear Madness" at the Kennedy Center and in Washington theaters, graced both Toby's and the West End with her dynamic, brassy, Broadway-baby presence. She's now in "Mamma Mia" in New York.
Toby's in Columbia and the West End in Alexandria are a few of the remaining dinner theaters of note left, along with the Lazy Susan Dinner Theater and the Chesapeake in Annapolis. Burn Brae Dinner Theater, just down the road from Toby's on Route 29, closed its doors earlier this year, after operating since 1968 under founder John Kinnamon.
Ms. Orenstein isn't happy about this development. "It's a sad thing," she says, even though she'll probably be picking up Burn Brae regulars as customers. "I was the first woman to every direct a production at Burn Brae for John."

Another thing makes dinner theaters something of a treasure as a theatrical genre. Short of the big and occasional touring company of a Broadway revival, dinner theaters are the only venues for keeping alive the classic work of a unique American art form. That's the American musical comedy, which provide the bread and butter and staple of material for dinner theaters. In that sense, dinner theaters function as a kind of time machine, both in nostalgic terms for older audiences and discovery for younger audiences.
"Nobody else is really doing these kind of musicals, not at a local level. So it's an opportunity for older people to see a well-done production of shows and music they grew up with," Ms. Orenstein says.
"And I think, more importantly, it's a way for kids to access shows that they might think are old-fashioned or 'mushy'. And they get surprised. I know some of the younger performers we used in 'Carousel' were skeptical at first. They called it 'Carou-smell,' which upset me. But after a few rehearsals, they got into it. I think they liked the love story, and they appreciated the rebellious character of Billy Bigelow, the young guy that doesn't fit."
In any case, musicals are a staple of every dinner theater. If you look through the production lists at Toby's since 1979, and West End since its 1984 beginnings, you'll find just about every Broadway musical of note at one time or another, sometimes in both places, sometimes more than once.
Toby's has presented just about the whole Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe pantheon: "Oklahoma," Carousel," "The King and I," "The Sound of Music" and "Brigadoon," not to mention "Annie Get Your Gun," "Fiddler on the Roof," "On The Town," "Oliver," "State Fair" and "42nd Street."
The West End began life with "My Fair Lady." It has offered productions of "Annie" as well as "Annie Get Your Gun," "Guys and Dolls," "Fiddler," West Side Story," "Mame," "Hello, Dolly," "Man of La Mancha," "South Pacific" and "Bye Bye Birdie," to name a few of the more reliable and classic staples.
Ms. Orenstein, 64, was born and bred in the Bronx and Manhattan, and remembers seeing the original "Guys and Dolls," "West Side Story" (with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert), and "My Fair Lady." Both Kevin Sheehan, the general manager and producer at West End, and Mark Minnick, who choreographs many of the shows there, remember being awed by productions of "Hello Dolly" in their youth, although both are only in their 30s.

Not that it's golden oldies the year round for both theaters. Both Toby's and the West End have carved out a niche for themselves, an identity that is spurred by audience demand and needs, location to some extent and the personalities or tastes of the people running the theaters.
At Toby's, that would be Ms. Orenstein, who is and always has been serious and passionate about theater. As is the case for the buffet offerings at Toby's, it's not just the meat and potatoes of old favorites that are part of the theatrical menu for her.
"I went to New York's High School of Performing Arts," she says of the school made legendary by the movie and TV series "Fame." "The teachers there indicated that I would be much better at directing, producing, organizing. And here I am."
Theater education has always been a driving force for her, as it is for many dinner theaters. Ms. Orenstein is a founder of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, a theatrical arts school for young people, and the no-longer-extant Young Columbians, an audition and performance class. Both Toby's and the West End put on special shows for children; the West End, whose current children's show is "Babes in Toyland," also offers a yearly theatrical summer camp.
"I think often people think that dinner theater is nothing but pared-down 'Oklahoma' or 'Hello, Dolly,' " Ms. Orenstein says. "We do so many different and often original shows here. About the same time that Arena Stage was doing an original musical version of 'It's a Wonderful Life,' we staged one independently, from the ground up. We had our own, original, production of 'Phantom.' And in the spring we'll be doing a stage production of 'The Jazz Singer,' from the original Al Jolson version."
And it's not all easy. "We do difficult things, new shows and Sondheim," Ms. Orenstein says. She was never happier than when she managed to rent the original costumes from "Sunday in the Park with George," Stephen Sondheim's innovative musical about impressionist painters, for her own production. "You should have seen it, it was so beautiful," she says.

All of this is a long way from the theater's beginning. Ms. Orenstein bought the place from a consortium that ran it as a restaurant with some spicy theatricals thrown in.
"Did you know this was a place that used to do sex farces, titles like 'In One Bed and Out the Other'? " she says. "The first thing we put on during Christmas of 1979 was 'Godspell,' which was a bit of a surprise to the regular patrons, I'm sure."
West End had a shaky beginning in 1984. Joan Matthews, marketing director and one of the owners and founders of the theater, says as much.
"We started out doing rare shows nobody's had done before for which, as it turned out, there wasn't much of an audience," she says. "We took a while finding our niche."
Finding the audience is always a tricky thing. Toby's draws mostly from the surrounding area, the Maryland communities around Columbia and the growing suburbs. West End, because it's slightly closer to Washington, trolls for dollars among tourists as well as locals.
"The spring and summer are our busiest time of the year, in terms of volume," Mr. Sheehan, the general manager at West End, says. "We get high school groups, tourist groups. We're packed, and we try to schedule shows accordingly. The holidays, like right now, are a little different. It's more local in flavor."
The West End mixes straight plays from "A Christmas Carol" to "Steel Magnolias" to Agatha Christie murder mysteries with musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" is a popular favorite at the West End and is opening (again) Dec. 29, and will eventually settle in for a long runm, from Feb. 13 to June 30.

The West End is full of people who love working in the theater and getting to do everything: Joey Wallen is a director who started out acting there, then doing technical work, designing and a few other things while working at the Kennedy Center.
"I'm doing tech work on 'Joseph' and I'm directing 'A Christmas Carol,' " Mr. Wallen says. "That's what I like about this place. You do everything, so there's a certain feeling of family and intimacy that you couldn't do anywhere else. In a perfect world, I would love to have my own theater."
Mr. Wallen and the rest of the company were up until 4 a.m. opening day putting the finishing touches on "A Christmas Carol" before it opened on Nov. 29.
Toby's and the West End are different in many ways. Toby's is a theater in the round, which makes the place, housed conveniently next to Columbia's spectacular "Symphony of Lights" Christmas show, seem homey and intimate. The West End, situated in a brightly lit shopping center on Duke Street, is a big place with a straight-ahead traditional proscenium stage.
Toby's is full-blast, all-you-can-eat buffet style dinner. The West End offers entrees and all the rest from a menu.
Toby's uses live musicians. The West End uses taped scores, although the singing, obviously, is live.
But the two theaters share some common hallmarks of dinner theater. There's the waiter-actor whose tips are a large part of his income. There is the genial host, who will also pop up in the show. There is the family aspect of the whole experience. Dinner and a show is a kind of one-stop shopping for going out on the town.
All of it combines to create a feeling one can't get in the more formal setting of "theater" with a capital T. Something about the experience itself, over and above the relative quality of the theatrical experience or the food, is unique, homey, intimate and down-to-earth human.
In Columbia, there are home-made, quilted, colorful posters of past shows and you can find that night's Annie, Gabriella Deluca, who looks like the very first Annie, Andrea McArdle, and admires her character.
"She's honest, brave and looks out for other people," says Gabriella, who is 9. "I want to be like that."
Dave Reynolds, whose bald head shines under the dressing room lights, played Daddy Warbucks on the road and is a regular at the Chesapeake Dinner Theater in Annapolis. "I am a virgin here, however," he says. "It's quite an experience."
Jazzy Williams, who plays Mollie the youngest orphan, is making her debut. "I am four and a half," she proudly says. Her mother and sister are also in the show.
Mojo Dakin, a grand blond Lab who plays Sandy the dog, is not talking to the press.
Here you wade through the buffet, and watch the family of man gather. You listen to Robert Biederman, who also plays Franklin Roosevelt in "Annie," announce birthdays, a 40th-wedding anniversary, point out a teen who turned 16. You meet Mr. Leon and his grandchildren, and watch dressed-up pre-teens with their parents going for a second helping of ham and turkey.
At the West End, it seems that same family is gathering. All those rows of silver hair are coming from two different Baptist Church groups. A former Georgetown business group executive is here to watch his teenaged son play Bob Cratchit's older son. An elderly man moves slowly with the help of a cane to his seat. On the stage, hooded figures in the background move fluidly according to choreographer Mark Minnick's direction, giving "Christmas Carol" a spooky flavor. And there's your waiter, Jeffrey Shankle, minus his apron, all dressed up in Victorian garb.
At Toby's, "tomorrow, tomorrow, is only a day away."
At the West End, it's "God Bless us everyone."
And God bless dinner theaters.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide