The cast of 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,' being put on by the Howard County Summer Theatre program, rehearses for its early July performances. (Jon Sham/Baltimore Sun video)

If it's summertime in Howard County, it's time for another musical production from the Howard County Summer Theatre.

For nearly 40 years, this nonprofit organization has been providing local theater lovers with a classic community theater experience.

At the same time, the group has provided a family-oriented, creative outlet for thousands of avid, amateur actors of all ages — and, over the years, raised an estimated $100,000 for county charities.

"It's the most unique company I've ever been with," said Chuck Bagley, 54, vice president of the company's board, who has been involved in local theater groups off and on since high school. 

"Theater, in my past experience, attracts a lot of people with egos — there's a lot of drama off-stage," Bagley said.  "I don't see that here. Howard County Summer Theatre is really much more of a family theater. It's just people having a good time, in it for family and fun."

Bagley, who lives in Ellicott City, plays Jacob in this year's production: "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," the popular Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on the Old Testament story of Joseph.

Like all of HCST's productions for the past few decades, it will be staged at Mt. Hebron High School and involves a large cast of exuberant local amateurs of all ages, including a number of parents and children working and acting together.

The family-friendly nature of the company, in fact, is a huge draw for many.

"We love it," said Heidi Bertaux, an Ellicott City mother who is acting in the play with her 21-year-old daughter, Rene. "There's such a great community here, people of all ages."

"The way people connect and click is great," agreed Rene. "It really is like a family."

Fellow actor Gary Reichard of West Friendship, expressed a similar sentiment, praising the "great people" and the great experience, as did his two teenage daughters, who also appear in this year's production.

"It's the highlight of my summer every year," said 18-year-old Kelsey Reichard, who, inspired in part by her experiences with HCST, plans to major in theater arts education in college.

"It's a blast," added sister Kayla, 15. "It's like family here."

Kayla was unsure of her college plans, still years away, but she sure of one thing: "I'll at least take theater as a minor."

Three stalwarts

The family-friendly nature of the company is perhaps best exemplified by the three people who have been a major part of the group for at least three decades — Tom Sankey, 60, the theater director at Mt. Hebron High who has been directing HCST shows since 1984; long-time choreographer Amanda Tschirgi, 49, of Ellicott City; and, long-time costumer Laural Clark, 52, of Glenwood.

None of the three — nor anyone else still with the company — was part at the formation of the group. That was the work of three Howard County mothers and musical lovers —  Hazel Philbrick, Elise Best and Jeanne Grennon.

The three were looking for local theater opportunities for their college-age children. Finding little, they started the Howard County Theatre Group, staging "Guys and Dolls" in the summer of 1975.

For the next several years, a revolving cast of directors and actors kept the group going. Then, in 1984, Sankey, who had worked as a rehearsal pianist for the group, was asked to direct.

"I said, 'Yes, but that I'd only be comfortable with the 'Sound of Music,' " Sankey recalled. "It had always been my favorite."