Musical fun all year long


The onset of fall means the start of a new cultural season - unless you're at Toby's Dinner Theatre, where the season never ends.

The company's production of "42nd Street" closed Sunday. Toby's next show, "Evita," opens today. There is no summer layoff or winter respite at Toby's; something's cooking all the time at the 20-year-old dinner theater. Artistic director Toby Orenstein says that's part of running a commercial enterprise in a 300-seat theater.

"You really have a very, very big overhead in a facility like this," Orenstein says. "So I have to generate a certain amount of income. And the more days I'm closed, the more income I lose. It's just economics."

While most cultural institutions plan seasons according to the academic calendar - beginning with autumn and finishing near summer - Toby's roughly follows the calendar year. The 2000 season, which opened with "The King and I," continues to feature revivals of favorites from the theater's two decades; in that spirit, Bobby Smith and Rick Stohler, the actors who originally played Che and Peron in Toby's "Evita," will return in those roles. The season concludes with the stage version of "It's a Wonderful Life," which earned three Helen Hayes Award nominations when Orenstein directed it in 1997.

Orenstein plans her season by making a list of a dozen musicals she would like to do and then finding out which are available. (The rights to some of the shows Orenstein would most like to produce, such as "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon," are often tied up by Broadway, touring or locally competing productions.) She then meets with the staff and decides on four musicals, hoping to find a well-rounded batch with wide appeal - "and since I direct nearly all the shows," Orenstein says, "something that is challenging for me."

Naturally, there are wrestling matches between Orenstein the artistic director, who wants to tackle interesting but lesser-known musicals such as "Chess" and "Blood Brothers," and Orenstein the president, who has to watch the bottom line. Periodically, she allows herself a risky show; last year, Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" was her gamble.

"I lose money every time I do a Sondheim show," Orenstein says with a wistful smile. "That doesn't stop me from doing it."

The theater draws significantly from tour groups, which is part of the reason that Toby's shows are planned early. ("Those groups book a year in advance," Orenstein says.) The 2001 season has been announced, with a subscriber party scheduled in two weeks. The slate begins in February with Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," followed in June by "Damn Yankees." Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" will open next September, with the holiday season belonging to "Annie."

Says Orenstein, "'Damn Yankees,' 'Carousel,' 'Annie' - they've never been here, and in my life I've never directed them."

"Damn Yankees" struck Orenstein as a "fun summer show" - it has a baseball theme, and its signature number is "Too Darn Hot" - while "Carousel" was appealing partly because Orenstein loved the recent revival that began in London, played Broadway and toured the United States.

"It was 'Carousel' or 'Cabaret' for that slot," Orenstein reports, indicating that the choice was a toss-up. "We'll probably do 'Cabaret' the following year."

Orenstein purchased costumes and sets from professional tours of "Carousel" two years ago and will embellish on those items for her production.

The 2001 holiday season also will feature select performances of "Forever Plaid" worked in around the "Annie" schedule. "Forever Plaid," Orenstein says, has been included for audiences who might want something more grown-up than the family-oriented "Annie" - even though she describes "Annie" as "a warm, everybody-enjoys-it kind of musical."

Though the season is chosen, details such as casting remain to be worked out. And will Orenstein direct all the shows next year?

"Don't know yet. Probably. Till I get real tired," she says with a laugh.

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