Toby's Dinner Theatre is Toby.

It's Toby Orenstein, producer and director for 12 years of the 39 shows in her Columbia showcase.


It's Toby, scurrying between phone calls to advertising reps and impromptu meetings with production people, who is preparing evening auditions for a late spring production of "The Music Man" while working on the theater's current 14-week run of "On The Town."

It's Toby, recipient of last year's "Howie Award" from the Howard County Arts Council for furthering the arts, who has featured productions that run the gamut from the flamboyant and familiar "Hello Dolly" to the somber and offbeat "Sweeney Todd."


"We're known as the risk-takers indinner theater," Orenstein, 53, says unabashedly. "We mix the usual with the unusual. My objective is to give the public an affordable opportunity to experience good theater with a capital 'G.' I want to whet their appetite and expose people to all types of musicals at an affordable price."

Toby's is one of nine dinner theaters in the competitive Baltimore-Washington market. Her closest competitors are Petrucci's in Laurel and Burn Brae in Burtonsville.

"We get customers from all over, equally from Baltimore and Washington," says Tony Toffon, 34, a manager of Toby's. But 40 percent of Toby's clientele comesfrom Howard County.

The theater, formerly Garland's Dinner Theater, was bought and revamped in 1979 when Orenstein and several restaurant owners from Virginia -- whom she has since bought out -- went into partnership.

It now boasts a crew of 15, a six-piece band and seating for 300. The unusual theater-in-the-round seating places the audience around the stage on three levels -- the furthest 30 feet from the floor -- and challenges the actors to make their performances more compelling to patrons than the cross-stage view of other patrons.

A night out at Toby's starts with buffet food and drink wheeled onto the stage two hours before showtime. Cast members wait tables, clearing them 30 minutes before the overture's opening strains.

Toby'sis open nightly except Mondays, has Sunday matinees and selected Wednesday matinees. Ticket prices vary from about $25 to $29.

Many ofthose who audition for Toby could easily be mistaken for accountants-- because they probably are. Her productions are replete with daytime school teachers and computer operators who assume on-stage personas at night.


Orenstein, a slender woman with a blond, coiffed hairdo, watches intently through large-framed eyeglasses as would-be starsaudition, belting out Broadway hits while trying to pick up intricate dance steps in a matter of minutes.

She juggles the duties of dinner theater while overseeing The Columbia School of Theatrical Arts,a children's theater she started near Burtonsville in 1967 and movedtwo years later to Columbia. She and her husband Harold, an economist with the U.S. Postal Rate Commission, live in Columbia.

Orenstein also teaches two classes at the school, where the emphasis "is not on performing but on learning how to perform. We give them the correct techniques so they can develop a character when onstage," she said.

A native New Yorker, Orenstein attended the High School of Performing Arts and graduated from Columbia University as a theater major with a minor in education. She is a former drama teacher at Catholic University in Washington.

"I'm an educator," she says. "I want to take people who are talented and teach them and give part of myself as an educator so they can grow."

Actors trained under Orenstein asa child see that quality in all her productions. Carol Lehan, 30, performed in Toby's Young Columbians childrens' theater group when she was 12 and is Miss Turnstiles in "On The Town."


"Toby doesn't justput up shows, she's involved with the performers. She channeled her teaching needs into directing. She will take the time to work with a green performer if she finds something unique and honest about him," says Lehan.

It's that guidance and attention to detail that have enhanced the theater's productions, says Gil Stotler, 43, of Columbia,assistant director of Tourism/Promotion with the Baltimore Area Conventions and Visitors Association, who has performed in summer stock and dinner theater since 1970.

"Dinner theater may not be Broadway,but Toby has come damn close in a couple of instances," he says. "She consistently puts out high-quality theater -- even with shows I don't like. She takes chances, and puts in money and her expertise. Someof her stuff just knocked my socks off."

"I do whatever it takes to make it exciting and wonderful," Orenstein says. Each show's budget varies, depending on needs. She says she has "a million" costumes and props in a warehouse in Columbia, and is always hunting for more.

Campy sets for "On The Town," silhouettes of the New York City skyline and a replica of the Radio City Music Hall red neon sign, are perched high on the walls within the theater. Even half of a yellow-checkered cab, parked in the lobby, is driven onstage during the show.

One of Orenstein's coups was acquiring the original Broadway costumes for last summer's "Sunday in the Park With George."


She tries to use authentic period costumes and props. Actresses in "On The Town"are wearing dresses and accessories made in the 1940s.

Orenstein says she likes her audience to feel the ambience of every show.

"In 'Singing in the Rain' we handed out raincoats and billed them (closest seats to the stage) as puddle seats," said Vickie Johnson, 30, Toby's production manager.