If you live in the Maryland/DC/Virginia area — or beyond — and are looking for something to do like dinner and a show, you can combine the two at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, MD. The theatre features a terrific buffet dinner with everything from salad to pot roast, chicken jambalaya, carved beef and turkey and all the fixins you could want. And there’s an ice cream bar to go with your dessert! Come hungry. And once dinner is done, you don’t have to leave your seat because the show will begin soon after.
Toby’s current production is the Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern classic Show Boat based on the novel by Edna Ferber. Show Boat first graced the Broadway stage in 1927 and subsequently became a movie — twice — and then returned again triumphantly to the Broadway stage in 1995. Show Boat has its share of humor and big musical numbers, but the show tackles some heavy issues that are still relevant today.
Show Boat takes place, for the most part, on Captain Andy Hawks’ Mississippi paddle boat the Cotton Blossom. The show boat stops in various cities up and down the river to put on a show for the locals, and is populated by its crew and performers. Everyone seems like a big, happy family but the captain’s wife Parthy Ann isn’t too keen on their daughter Magnolia getting friendly with star Julie, nor entertaining her desires to become an actress. When Julie’s shocking (for the time) secret is revealed, she and her husband decide to leave the Cotton Blossom, leaving Andy without his two lead actors.
Luckily Magnolia knows all the lines, and one of the other actors finds a man in town who needs to book passage up the river. When Gaylord Ravenal and Magnolia meet, sparks fly and in no time they are married, over her mother’s dead body (well, unconscious). But Gaylord has his own secrets and vices, gambling all their money away and abandoning Magnolia and their daughter Kim in Chicago, leaving Nola to wonder what she’ll do for money and how her parents will react if they ever learn the truth. One thing that never wavers, however, is her love for Gaylord. But will he ever know just how much she loves him?
Producing any stage production is a monumental task, but doing one in the round is even more difficult because of how the audience is situated 360 degrees around the stage area. Show Boat directors Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick make the best use of the stage and three raised areas in the space, with props swiftly moving in and out from all directions in the blink of an eye to transform the stage from the kitchen of the Cotton Blossom to an apartment to a nightclub and back again. It’s amazing what they have done, and the crew deserves as much of a round of applause as do the actors.
The actors. You will be hard-pressed to find as talented a group as they have at Toby’s. Many in the cast are making their debuts and many have a long history with the theatre as well as other stage work under their belts. But when people make derogatory remarks about dinner theatre acting being sub-par to what you’d expect from a Broadway or national touring show, they have not seen a show at Toby’s. Everyone in the cast is just terrific regardless of how big or small the role(s), and you won’t find a weak voice among them. And when they all sing together, those voices make the most beautiful sound.
While everyone is fantastic, you can’t overlook the talents of the main players. Russell Rinker (Gaylord) gives a nice performance of a conflicted man. He loves his wife but he’s ashamed to have put her and their child in such a bad spot, and you can see all those emotions on his face. And his singing voice is smooth and mellow as well. He fits the part of the suave riverboat gambler like a glove. Abby Middleton (Magnolia) is lovely, with a beautiful voice, and has the character who changes the most throughout the show, from the innocent ingénue to the lovelorn wife embarrassed by her situation. But again, she breathes life into Magnolia, allowing the audience to feel the same emotions as she does.
Of the Cotton Blossom’s workers, Samantha Deininger’s Queenie is a hoot as she ribs Julie for knowing the words to a “Negro song” and giving her man Joe a hard time for not really doing anything unless he has to. Her duet with Joe in the second act, “I Still Suits Me,” allows Deininger’s amazing voice to shine, bringing down the house. Joe is played by Marquis White, and he also gives a very nice performance and is saddled with the task of singing what is probably the show’s best known song, “Ol’ Man River.” White’s deep, resonant voice brings a lot of emotional weight to the song, and he also gets to cut loose in the duet with Queenie. Both actors are simply amazing.
Jeffrey Shankle and Elizabeth Rayca, as the show boat’s comedy duo, also get to shine in a few numbers, while Julia Lancione also showcases her terrific voice in the role of Julia. And Robert John Biedermann 125 gets all the show’s best one-liners while Jane C. Boyle is appropriately haughty and overbearing as his wife (and many of his one-liners are aimed sqaurely at her). The show is accompanied by a six-piece orchestra that sounds just as good as any Broadway orchestra you’ll hear.
All in all, Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s production of Show Boat, plus the dinner that accompanies it, makes for a great night of dining pleasure and entertainment. Everything from performances to lighting design to costumes is top notch. Book your evening of entertainment on the Cotton Blossom now before she sails up the river.