Dinner theater, taken seriously

COURTESY Toby's Dinner Theatre - Fiddler on the Roof performance at Toby's Dinner Theatre.

“This is the story,” declares a feisty Toby Orenstein, co-owner and artistic director of Toby’s Dinner Theatre, which is celebrated and berated in what sometimes seems to be equal measure. “Dinner theater has a stigma with certain people. It’s deemed that it’s not good theater, which is so, so untrue.”

This flap heats up every few seasons when Toby’s, doing business in Columbia since 1979, upstages bigger, better known Equity troupes such as Signature Theatre and Arena Stage by raking in armloads of Helen Hayes Award nominations. This year Orenstein’s production of “The Color Purple” earned the most nods (eight), though only Theresa Cunningham won (tied for best supporting actress).

(Courtesy Toby's Dinner Theatre) - David Bosley-Reynolds as the character Tevye in Toby's Dinner Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Toby's Dinner Theatre

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Signs of scant respect: the shows at Toby’s aren’t reviewed by the Post. During the Hayes Awards, tweets suggested an ironic disconnect between honoring actor-waiters on the same night a special trophy was given to Actors’ Equity, the performers’ union.

Orenstein says her actors have been known to make $1,000 a week. This is confirmed by Priscilla Cuellar, who tied with Cunningham for the best supporting actress trophy (she played Paulette in “Legally Blonde” at Toby’s). Cuellar says her own best week has been around $800, doing seven shows and working three shifts as a server.

The base pay is small, though; Toby’s payroll office declines to divulge any figures, but Cunningham says a lot of the income is tips. Cunningham adds that she wouldn’t be able to take roles without also waiting tables a couple times a week (which is voluntary).

The compensation can be extremely meager at many non-Equity theaters, of course, which get credit for good intentions. And plenty of non-Equity theaters compete for Hayes Awards.

But fetching cheesecake and coffee for patrons while costumed in “Fiddler on the Roof” peasant skirts and kerchiefs, between choruses of “Matchmaker” and “Anatevka,” seems to cross a line. In a region where there is no consensus about what “professional” theater actually means, dinner theater seems particularly easy to diss.

“We’ve thought of calling it Toby’s Theater, Dinner Available,” says Orenstein, 75. “Because of the title, people judge. And that’s hard.”

Hollywood star and former Orenstein student Edward Norton happily sang Orenstein’s praises several years ago, when Toby’s again elbowed toward the front of the Hayes line. Three actors with Toby’s credits are currently on Broadway: Alan Wiggins (“Lion King”), Caroline Bowman (“Kinky Boots”), and Jake Odmark (“Spider-Man”).

Because it’s practically the only local company based almost entirely on staging large-cast musicals, Toby’s has long been a platform for local talent. Alumni include Bobby Smith (a Hayes winner last week for his leading performance in “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” at Alexandria’s MetroStage), Eleasha Gamble (Laurey in Arena’s “Oklahoma!”), Debra Buonaccorsi (founder-performer of the upstart rock-theater group Dizzy Miss Lizzie’s Roadside Revue), plus Felicia Curry, Stephen F. Schmidt, Sherri Edelen and more D.C.-area staples.

“I have tons of friends who do shows there,” says Cuellar.

A taste:

Show starts at 8, doors open at 6. David Bosley-Reynolds is your waiter – tall, twinkly eyed, soft-spoken. He recommends the cocktail special (in a souvenir glass) that’s tailored to the current show, “Fiddler on the Roof’: a frozen drink called “Sunrise, Sunset.”

Tzeitel’s Noodle Kugel and Tevye’s Chicken Paprikas are featured dishes at the buffet. The food is stationed in the middle of the room, where steam tables are powered by cables dangling from the low-hanging lighting grid overhead. A half-hour before show time, the tables are efficiently whisked away. This is theater in the round, and the food service must vacate center stage.

It’s 8 o’clock, and Bosley-Reynolds’s smooth face and bald pate have been transformed by a black beard and wig. He is now Tevye, ringleading the company number “Tradition” and soloing through “If I Were a Rich Man.” The space is too small for substantial sets, and as is often the case with non-Equity musicals, the underpowered orchestra of five musicians is anchored by the drone of a synthesizer. But the audience is close to the performers, which is one reason they often stand out (though this middling “Fiddler,” co-directed by David James and Tina Marie DeSimone, isn’t likely to clean up at next year’s Hayes event).

The buffet-style service doesn’t mean the actor-waiters, including Bosley-Reynolds, aren’t kept hopping. Intermission is an athletic event: still in costume, but not in character, the servers sling drink orders by the tray full, desserts by the armload. They process the bills and pray that they’re decently tipped. Gratuities are supposed to be based on the full ticket price, which is typically around $50.

“It’s just not known,” Cunningham says of the custom.

On two-show days, the doors open at 10:30 a.m. Cunningham, who will play Madame Thenardier in the upcoming “Les Miserables” at Toby’s, says some performers brave shifts as servers for both shows. “Stronger people than I,” she adds.

“The Color Purple” was Cunningham’s first dinner theater gig. Dealing with audiences face to face as herself took an adjustment.

“But I became someone, when there was some challenge or complaint, they’d say, ‘Theresa, take that table,’ ” says Cunningham. “Everything kind of rolled off of me.”

Cuellar says, “It’s kind of nice to get to know the audience. They’re always so excited to meet you and get to know you.”

Both performers talk about measuring their energy and taking fewer waiting shifts when the role is more emotionally taxing.

“You have to hustle,” Cuellar says.

Is this awkward, having actors plying their noble art while doubling as harried waiters? Or – here’s a highfalutin theoretical twist – is this entwining of working lives a radical breach of the theater’s mythical fourth wall? A Brechtian foregrounding of capitalism’s savage edges? A frank acknowledgment that on this stage, as on most stages, the performer must do more than just perform to live?

“This is the most money you’re going to make as a non-Equity actor,” says Cuellar, who has worked at Signature, the Olney Theatre, MetroStage and the Keegan Theatre, where she is in rehearsals for “The Full Monty.”

Another production of “The Full Monty” is currently running at the Riverside Center Dinner Theater in Fredericksburg, where Cuellar has also pocketed decent money, and where Cunningham did “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Stoking the 1970s image of dinner theater as an outpost for down-trending careers, Riverside’s “Monty” stars Sally Struthers.

Orenstein, who was invited into the business years ago by restaurateur Steve Lewis (they have a second operation in downtown Baltimore), says her 300-seat theater has 4,000 subscribers and draws up to 80,000 patrons a year. The business pace is brisk: “Fiddler” will close April 28, and the next musical, “In the Heights,” begins May 2. At 10 weeks, “The Color Purple” was the longest job Cunningham had ever had outside of children’s tours. “Les Miz” is scheduled for 16 weeks.

Still: dinner theater. Ick.

“I get it,” Cuellar says, adding, “She (Orenstein) really takes pride in what she does. She chooses material intelligently, and I think people see that. It’s not for everyone, obviously. But a lot of people enjoy it.”

Fiddler on the Roof

Through April 28. Toby’s Dinner Theater, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, Md. Call 301-596-6161 or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

In the Heights

May 2-July 21. Toby’s Dinner Theater, 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, Md. Call 301-596-6161 or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

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