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Toby's gives local actress showcase for talents


Being obnoxious is all in a day's work for Megan Lawrence, who turns endearing most weeknights and twice on Sunday.

By day, the 21-year-old actress plays an annoying 6-year-old, and in the evening, a spirited, young woman, in two concurrent productions at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

Performing in roles that point to her incredible range, the Ellicott City resident reveals a versatility that has catapulted her into a rising star at Toby's.

"I think Megan is an exceptional talent," said Toby Orenstein, owner and director of Toby's. "She's got real depth. She has what it takes to be a star. She has the ability to connect with her audience. She is a very real actor, very natural on stage, very warm."

In "Shenandoah," she brings gumption and charm to the role of Jenny, the feisty daughter of Charlie Anderson, a Virginia farmer and isolationist who refuses to get involved in the Civil War until the war comes to him.

In "Bridge to Terabithia," a musical about two youngsters who create a fantasy land based on mythical characters, Ms. Lawrence plays May Bell. As the comic relief, Ms. Lawrence becomes everyone's little sister, pesky yet needy.

"I don't pigeonhole Megan," Ms. Orenstein said. "She can do either drama or comedy. She gets into the heart of the character and develops it from inside out and does it quickly. She becomes one with the text."

Ms. Lawrence's dedication to her craft began when she performed her first serious work as a noun in her first-grade play at Centennial Lane Elementary School.

"I wanted to play the period," she said. "That was the lead, but I was beat out by some other girl. That was my first rejection, but that's when I decided to be the best noun I could be."

Her big break in the dinner theater circuit came in the seventh grade. The young actress landed the title role in "Annie" at the Limestone Dinner Theater in Cockeysville -- despite competition from 200 other children who showed up dressed as Annie.

Later that year, she was cast by Ms. Orenstein as a newsboy in "Gypsy." In the eighth grade, she performed in "George M" at the Act II Dinner Theater in Dundalk.

Fame took a holiday when Ms. Lawrence entered Centennial High School, and she limited herself to school productions.

After graduating in 1989, Ms. Lawrence attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. Dissatisfied with the school's rigid program, she left after two years.

"I hated it there," she said. "I wanted to perform -- I didn't want to take rigorous classes about learning to perform."

Returning to Ellicott City in 1991, she auditioned at Toby's for the musical "South Pacific," where she was again cast as a male and as a Polynesian native and nurse.

At that time, Ms. Orenstein began "Youth Theatre," a project that brings live theater to students from Howard, Montgomery and Charles counties.

Ms. Lawrence appeared in the program's debut as Fern the Pig Saver in "Charlotte's Web." In 1992, she starred as the rabbit in the musical "The Velveteen Rabbit."

For the Dinner Theatre, Ms. Orenstein cast the petite blond totally out of character for the role of Violet in "It's A Wonderful Life" in 1991.

"I played the [prostitute] of the town," Ms. Lawrence said. "Toby pulled me in for a separate audition. There were other girls more TTC suited for the part, who looked like [prostitutes]. But Toby said, 'I know you could do it.'

Ms. Orenstein said she looked beyond Ms. Lawrence's wholesome appearance. "Everybody told me I was crazy. My staff felt she didn't have the physical maturity. But she was wonderful."

Another dramatic break in typecasting came last year as a "Do-Wop" girl in the Burn Brae Dinner Theater production of "Little Shop of Horrors" in Burtonsville.

"I honestly sing with a little soul," said the soprano belt. "For me, to portray a black girl was my lifelong dream."

Ms. Lawrence donned a dark wig to look "ethnic, like a street girl," she said. "They didn't make me look black. But there were two black women and I was part of them."

In March, she returned to Toby's for "Shenandoah" where she has been challenged to show the evolution of Jenny "from cute and quirky to being more grown-up," she said.

Though the play has been running since February, in one poignant scene "Megan still brings real tears," said Ms. Orenstein. "Emotion is there. She becomes Jenny.

"You don't see her working on her craft. You feel like she's there and you're just eavesdropping on the character. You forget she's acting."

For her role in "Terabithia," Ms. Lawrence relishes playing a 6-year-old. "It's a small stretch," she said. "But I keep my youth and that's fine with me."

Though Ms. Lawrence performs eight shows a week for the Dinner Theatre and two to five times per week in the Youth Theatre, she tries to squeeze in time for an occasional jaunt to New York City for an audition.

"I would like to perform in summer stock," she said, although she has no preference where or even what, just "as long as I keep performing and I feel satisfied and I get to improve my talent."

But if she has her druthers, the unconventional performer would not perform in any Rogers and Hammerstein musicals.

"Their shows are all classics, and I don't like them," she said.

"I like [Steven] Sondheim. I like rock musicals. I'd love to be in 'Hair,' a down-home, '60s, get-naked musical.

"I'd rather be doing something really intense. I like tragedy," she said with a laugh.

Toby's Dinner Theatre is presenting "Shenandoah" through Ma 30. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; and at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays.

A public performance of "Bridge To Terabithia" will be at 11 a.m. April 16.

Ticket prices vary. Information: 730-8311.

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