Local talent returns for Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts gala

It was a hot, muggy summer's night at Toby's Dinner Theater and ideas on how to raise money for Toby Orenstein's widely acclaimed Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts had been flying every which way, from barbecues and yard sales to a themed dance party. But then director Orenstein brought everyone back to the main point.

"We need performers who know CCTA," she said. "They understand our mission better than anyone."

Now bags are being packed and plane/train reservations finalized as a bevy of performers get ready to venture back to town for "Bringing Broadway to Columbia," a CCTA benefit at the dinner theater Oct. 13. The show, staged every couple years, is a large-scale, variety program that brings theater and musical performers together at the place where many of them got their start.

As in years past, some of the entertainers will arrive in town just hours before the curtain rises. These are singers who can jump onto a stage and belt out a tune faster than you can say, "Toby Orenstein."

The list includes Risa Binder, Emmy-nominated recording artist and country music star; Jay Frisby, coming home from Hong Kong where he recently performed in "The Lion King," and before that the "South Pacific" tour; and Brynn Williams, a cast member of Broadway's "Bye-Bye Birdie" and "13, A New Musical." Apparently smitten with the CCTA kids in last summer's production of "The Addams Family," John Astin just announced he will make a guest appearance at the benefit.

Another highlight will be Howard County's talented triple threat: singer, dancer, actor Caroline Bowman, 26, currently starring as Eva Peron in "Evita" at the Kennedy Center. Monday is a "dark day" for many professional actors, which allows them to share their talents (without pay) at these events and not miss a paid performance.

The CCTA benefit fulfills another item of Bowman's current "wish list" that began as a member of the Young Columbians and continues as an understudy at Toby's Dinner Theater; a Broadway gig; and now the lead in a touring musical at the Kennedy Center. For the CCTA gala, Bowman (who wowed this writer in the Broadway production of "Kinky Boots," especially in the wildly imaginative dance routines) will pay tribute to her mentors, Orenstein and Sue Miller, theater director at Glenelg High School where Bowman said she "stretched her wings."

"That 'wish list' was pretty dead on," Bowman said in a recent telephone conversation from Connecticut, her last stop on the "Evita" tour before the Washington engagement. "I am a Howard County kid who was encouraged to make it to Broadway."

Her mom, Connie Bowman, an actress, and her dad, Rob Bowman, a wrestling coach, encouraged Bowman to pursue her dreams, and she describes herself as having a "well-rounded life, supported by my family." She attended Hammond Elementary, Glenwood Middle, and graduated from Glenelg High in 2006, where she was both a theatrical star and the manager of the wrestling team.

"Sue [Miller] gave me so many opportunities to shine at school," Bowman said of her drama teacher at Glenelg. "And she offered me characters across the board. She had me play everything from Marion the Librarian in 'Music Man' to Rizzo in 'Grease.' She definitely has had a huge impact on my life as well as career."

As a youngster, Bowman joined her mother on stage at Laurel Community Theater, but it was at Toby's Dinner Theater where she got her professional start.

"Toby gave me the chance to hone my skills as an actress and polish my technique as a performer," Bowman said. "She's an amazing director."

Besides running a successful dinner theater, school, camp and touring singing group, Orenstein also knows how to throw a party. When it comes to producing a benefit for her Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (which she founded four decades ago), she pulls out all the stops. The food, the shows and the silent auctions raise both funds for the center and awareness for the various programs that benefit both the students and the community.

"Through the arts, children learn … and become better people," Orenstein said at her dinner theater office. "They learn compassion, how to give and take, how to trust themselves. That's what we're all about here at the center. We do free after-school programs in the area. We take shows to places where children have never been exposed to theater before."

CCTA director Alex Bowler Franco, an alum and former Young Columbian, emphasizes the outreach programs like the touring "Ben Carson, MD" seen by thousands of students throughout the state.

CCTA has been home to the Young Columbians, the Labels Project and Theatrical Arts Productions (TAP), the original youth productions. The Center has embarked on a new theatrical journey, partnering with Loyola University to work through theater arts with youth who have autism and other special needs.

"We all know that funding has been cut to the arts," Orenstein said. "Our benefits are important to be able to carry on this mission in these times."

"Bringing Broadway to Columbia, an Evening of Music, Song & Laughter," will be held at Toby's Dinner Theater of Columbia, Monday, Oct. 13. Tickets are $75 for pre-show silent auction, trivia contest, buffet dinner and admittance to the performance. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. For information on all CCTA events, go to cctArts.com.

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