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Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia gamely staging ‘Home for the Holidays’

With the opening of Toby’s Dinner Theatre’s original production “Home for the Holidays” last month, David James could not be happier. The actor, who lives in Laurel, has been in over 80 productions at the Columbia theater, yet this holiday production might be his most memorable.

“We’re so excited about it,” James said. “It has been quite a long time not to be on a stage.”

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After the abrupt closure of “Kinky Boots” in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, James and his fellow cast mates were not sure when, if ever, they would be able to perform live again.

“It was totally out of our hands,” James said. “For a performer, not to be able to perform is such a hard thing to do.”

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As the stage remained dark throughout the summer, the theater received a thorough cleaning, according to Mark Minnick, the associate producer of “Home for the Holidays” who has directed and choreographed many shows at Toby’s.

“We did everything. We scrapped all the paint off and took it down to the bare cinder blocks,” Minnick said. “We did all the ducts and vents.”

David James in Toby's Dinner Theatre’s "Home for the Holidays" show.
David James in Toby's Dinner Theatre’s "Home for the Holidays" show. (Courtesy photo/Jeri Tidwell / HANDOUT)

An ultraviolet germicidal lighting system was added to the theater’s ventilation/air handler system. Hand-sanitizing stations were put in place. Tables were rearranged to keep patrons 6 feet apart from each other and from the stage.

The most obvious change, James believes, is the dinner. Instead of its traditional buffet, Toby’s cast members will be serving a plated dinner, not just beverages. Audience members will have the choice of several entrees complete with salad, rolls and dessert.

“Everything is being done for their safety,” Minnick said. “Everything is ready. All precautions are in place.”

Following government restrictions, the theater was limited to how many people it could have onstage and in the audience. As its scheduled production of “Elf” required a large cast and ensemble numbers, the production was delayed until July 2021 for a Christmas in July run. Instead, Toby’s decided to open with the original production “Home for the Holidays.” It features a cast of eight performing holiday favorites including “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls” with guest appearances by Frosty the Snowman and Santa and his elves during two 40-minute acts.

“This is just what people need, “ James said. “A fun, lighthearted show.”

Even with only eight cast members, it was still a challenge to stage, according to Minnick.

“It was a puzzle to choreograph everyone and keep them apart,” Minnick said. “It is rare all eight are onstage together.”

Actors wear masks and face shields while performing.

“It is an adjustment and an acceptance,” Minnick said.”It is like reading subtitles. You don’t notice it after a while.”

Performances average between 40 to 50 people in attendance, much smaller than 280 to 300 people typically allowed into Toby’s. Everyone has their temperature taken and answer a few questions before attending. Masks are to be worn while watching the performance and no longer dining.

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“It feels very different,” Minnick said. “I’ve been to every show. The audience response is small but mighty.”

The staff, Minnick said, had discussed doing productions outside during the summer or offering two-person shows, but decided to wait until the full theater could reopen.

“Different theaters have been reopening successfully,” Minnick said. “We have followed many of the recommendations and made sure every actor felt safe. I am so excited and so proud of everything we have done.”

The current cast members, Minnick said, have been part of the Toby’s family for many years, and are audience favorites.

“They are a great group. They sound wonderful and they’re funny,” Minnick said. “They know this space and have respect for each other. They will do this safely because they want to do this.”

James is impressed with all that has been done to the building to create a safe atmosphere. He and his fellow cast members are now starting rehearsals for Toby’s next production, “Godspell.”

“This is the new normal,” James said. “I feel safe. A lot went into opening this building when it was safe to do so.”

Now, Minnick is hoping that audience members will feel safe enough to return to live theater.

“When people are ready to return, we’re ready and we’re here,” Minnick said. “Nothing replaces a live performance.”

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