Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts celebrates 45 years with reunion, free performance

For the Columbia Flier

Toby Orenstein scrunches her face and wiggles her nose like the enchantress in the TV sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie." Although she doesn't like to be reminded of this particular facial expression, it has become her signature, endearing her to fans and theater family.

She points a finger toward a young performer during a recent Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts rehearsal, and in her gruff, yet loving voice, bellows, "Tell the story … singing is extended speaking …always remember you're telling a story."

And what a story they tell.

These are heady times for Orenstein. With nearly four decades at the helm of Toby's Dinner Theatre, this weekend she commemorates 45 years as founding artistic director of CCTA and its performance ensemble the Young Columbians with special events, theatrical performances and a reunion of former students, including many who have found professional roles on Broadway and in Hollywood.

For nearly five decades, CCTA has been home to the Young Columbians, the Labels Project and Theatrical Arts Productions. The recent addition of the Starfish Sponsor Program rewards children with scholarships to all of the programs on an at-needed basis.

"We do free after-school programs in 10 or 11 schools in Baltimore and throughout Howard County," said Orenstein. "We take shows to places where children have never been exposed to theatre."

Orenstein's face lights up as she talks about her involvement with teaching drama in Howard County. "I think I have bought artistic integrity to Columbia," Orenstein said. "I've provided a good environment for young people to learn their craft through the school and performing through the theater."

Close to her heart is the dream of a permanent home for her CCTA students, one that may finally come true with pending plans for the development of downtown Columbia.

All this reunion arranging is enough to keep the just-turned-octogenarian in constant vacillation between exhilaration and panic. Fortunately she has a sidekick, Carol Graham Lehan, an original Young Columbian who has a gift for pulling shows together under pressure. She wrote the script for a Saturday lakefront concert and Sunday's post-party skits. Her brother, Bill Graham, will moderate Q&A sessions on Sunday, a nod to television's "Inside The Actor's Studio."

Nearly 200 alumni are expected to attend the weekend events, some arriving earlier to spend time with families, some staying later to continue the celebration. They are coming in from Florida and Hollywood, up and down the East Coast and across the Midwest to mingle with old friends, but mainly to honor Orenstein.

"It's so wonderful to hear from my former students … some I haven't seen in 25 years or more," Orenstein said, wiping a tear away. "Many have gone on to accomplished careers in fields other than theater."

Some of those former students include Stacy Wolf, a published author; Peter Salett, who creates music for films; Michele Kelemen, NPR correspondent; and Alex Franco, who oversees Orenstein's school as an administrator.

"This reunion is one of palpable excitement," vocalist Kevin McDonagh said in a telephone conversation from his New York home. "As an original member of the Young Columbians, I have constantly been struck through the years that we had a special experience that was engendered under the direction of Toby. It was a unique opportunity to work together and create a moving theatrical adventure, both for us and the audience."

Orenstein has maintained her passion for helping young thespians fulfill their dreams since the fall of 1972, when Jim Rouse invited her to set up her drama school in Columbia's Talbot Springs neighborhood.

By 1975, she handpicked a bevy of talented students to perform a patriotic musical, "A Tribute to America." They became the Young Columbians, a professional musical ensemble that has performed at the White House and throughout the U.S. Today, the current Young Columbians still sing those familiar tunes but with an urgency that continues to surprise and delight Orenstein and her staff.

"I don't think people realize the importance of the arts, especially for the health and well being of young people," said Orenstein. "Students are able to communicate much better with their peers and their self-esteem is boosted."

Broadway actor and vocal coach Ric Ryder, from the second iteration of the Young Columbians, said, "It seems as if there is so much celebration this summer, all happening at once. It feels like a life event, a right of passage, a wedding or graduation that is not to be missed."

In Toby's Dinner Theatre's current production of "Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," which opened June 15, five veteran performers return to play the role of the narrator, including Caroline Bowman, who is in the role through June 23. Bowman appeared in the original company of "Kinky Boots" and played Eva Peron on the National Tour of "Evita" and Elphaba in Broadway's smash hit, "Wicked."

"It was a no-brainer to come back and perform at Toby's for this special event," Bowman said. "She is family to me and working at her theater was my dream way before I wanted to be on Broadway. This reunion is going to be amazing."

All-stars

This weekend's 45th anniversary of Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts will feature a reunion and free outdoor performance on Saturday and question and answer sessions Sunday at Howard Community College.

CCTA alumni will meet on Saturday, June 24 at the Columbia lakefront, followed by a performance by the Young Columbians. Among the professional performers expected to attend are Hollywood film actors Tico Wells and Mary Keller; Broadway writer/director Mark Waldrop and performers Robin Baxter, "Rocky" female lead Margot Seibert, Betsy True of "Les Miz" and Steve Blanchard, who played the Beast in "Beauty and the Beast"; Tony-nominated Megan Lawrence; Nashville's Grammy-nominated Risa Binder; and television, film and stage actress Traci Thoms.

The Young Columbians will perform on the lakefront stage at 8 p.m., with long-time piano accompanist Patricia Hammer.

Two question and answer sessions will be held at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre on Sunday, June 25 at 1 and 3 p.m. Moderator Bill Graham Jr. will interview CCTA alumni who have achieved success in their respective fields. Tickets are $20 for one session, $30 for both. For information, call 410-730-8311 or go to info@CCTArts.org.

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