The scene in the kitchen of Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia unfolded in a mad yet expertly choreographed dance. Waiters wearing ties and button-down shirts filed into a veritable chorus line as they carried plates of cheesecake to the audience. One took center stage as he strode out with a pitcher of water.
In the intimate roundhouse theater, the audience had just finished Toby's buffet dinner: salmon with cilantro sauce, baked Virginia pit ham and glazed carrots. Michael Siller quickly poured coffee before dashing backstage to change into his costumes -- he would play a dancing knife and a doormat -- for the recent evening's performance of the musical "Beauty and the Beast."
"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please!" a voice boomed.
The lights dimmed, and the audience was instructed to blow out the candles on the tables. With a collective whoosh, the show began.
"Beauty and the Beast," which closed Sunday, was no ordinary production for Toby's. Owner Toby Orenstein, for whom the theater is named, said the show broke the 26-year-old theater's financial and attendance records. Although she declined to give specific numbers, Orenstein said the show's 21-week run was one of the longest in the theater's history. Almost every night sold out, she said.
"I think everybody's a sucker for happy endings," said actress Janine Gulisano, who played Belle, the beauty who falls in love with the Beast.
The theater's latest production, "Grease," was scheduled to open yesterday. Gulisano is expected to return in the fall to perform in "Aida."
Traditionally, dinner theaters have been looked down on for producing lower-quality shows. In December, Chesapeake Music Hall in Annapolis closed its doors because of financial problems. But Toby's has consistently turned traditional wisdom on its head.
The success of "Beauty and the Beast" was another highlight in a solid year for Toby's. It was also nominated this year for seven Helen Hayes Awards, the Washington area's equivalent of the Tony Awards. David James won for outstanding supporting actor for his role in "Godspell" at the theater last year. Orenstein won for outstanding director in 2003 for "Jekyll and Hyde."
"I think Toby [Orenstein] does theater for the right reasons. She wants to entertain people," said Linda Levy Grossman, executive director of the Hayes Awards.
Orenstein has directed "Beauty and the Beast" and almost every other show at the theater. Her fingerprints are found on everything, including acting, lighting and costumes.
"I approve everything that goes on here, pretty much," she said proudly.
One of the biggest expenses for "Beauty and the Beast" was the ornate costumes, but Orenstein said she wasn't afraid to spend the money. "You can't do 'Beauty and the Beast' without magical costumes," she scoffed.
One year, during a rehearsal of "West Side Story," she decided the costumes weren't right and ordered new ones.
"If it's not right, I change it," she said. "I'm not afraid of change."
That spirit served the playhouse well in "Beauty and the Beast." Gulisano said little girls often came to the show dressed in Belle costumes and asked when she would don the signature golden ball gown.
"They come up and hug me. It's like they know me," she said. "They're like, 'I love you, Belle!' "
The theater, with its family friendly shows and prices, has become one of the county's most visible and venerable institutions. Tickets for "Grease" are $41 to $46 for adults and $27.50 to $46 for children 12 and younger, including dinner or brunch buffet. Rarely does a school year go by without a field trip to Toby's. It also draws student groups from across the country. Kids from Texas and Wisconsin were in the audience on a recent evening.
Orenstein knows those students are the next generation of theater-lovers -- and maybe actors. She directs youth productions at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, tackling challenging works such as "Ragtime." Grossman said there are few local actors whose careers Orenstein has not been involved with.
"Toby is able to identify really good talent," she said. "She gets extraordinary performances out of her actors."
Gulisano got her first big break at Toby's. Her first role at the theater was a bit part in its 1998 production of "Oliver!" By the next show, "West Side Story," Gulisano was playing Maria, one of the lead roles. Since then, she has appeared at Toby's in "Children of Eden," "Jekyll & Hyde," "Cats," "Ragtime," "Godspell" and "Meet Me in St. Louis."
"Toby just keeps giving me these great opportunities, and I'm not going to turn them down," Gulisano said.
Orenstein doesn't show any signs of slowing down either. The theater has always done musicals, and Orenstein said she is as committed as ever to them.
"I think people react to music," she said. "We always remember songs and what we might've been doing when songs were played."
Grossman said Toby's is living, breathing, ticket-selling proof that dinner theater can not only turn a profit but also can produce quality shows. The reason is Orenstein, she said. "She's got great vision, and she's got a lot of guts," Grossman said.