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Garnering accolades on and off the stage


Toby's Dinner Theatre and Rep Stage have continued their streak of Helen Hayes award nominations, receiving two apiece in this year's contest.

Both companies have collected more than three dozen nominations, but leaders say it continues to be a thrill to be recognized by the prestigious contest for Washington-area theaters.

"I'm always very excited to be included," said Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

Kasi Campbell, associate artistic director for Rep Stage, which is in residence at Howard Community College, said her colleagues in the theater community try not to put too much emphasis on awards. But, she said, "I think Columbia residents are kind of proud their little theaters beyond the Beltway get to play with the big boys downtown."

This year, Ilona Kessell was nominated for her choreography of Beauty and the Beast at Toby's. Felicia Curry was nominated in the category of lead actress in a resident musical for her title role in Aida at the dinner theater. (A resident production is one that does not tour.)

Rep Stage's production of The Violet Hour was recognized with nods for set design by Richard Montgomery and for supporting actor Bruce R. Nelson.

The winners will be announced at a celebration April 17 at the Warner Theatre in Washington.

The competition this year included 178 productions. Nominations went to 56 productions at 25 theaters, including some with 15 or more nominations such as the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage and Signature Theatre. The Olney Theatre Center, a few miles south of Howard County, received four nominations.

"To be recognized by a group of peers is wonderful," said Michael Stebbins, artistic director of Rep Stage. "Our public likes to hear we were recognized by other people."

He said he hopes the attention will help the theater seek out more corporate sponsorships and grants.

Montgomery, of Annapolis, was nominated for designing a crowded, paper-filled office for The Violet Hour, the story of an inexperienced publisher in 1919 choosing between two manuscripts while a machine spits out pages of history books yet to be written.

Stebbins praised Montgomery's authenticity and attention to detail.

"He is so hands-on," Stebbins said. "Everything when you walk in looks like this place has been there from the beginning of time. You never question that it is real."

Montgomery also designed the set for The Dazzle, which was written by the same playwright as The Violet Hour, Richard Greenberg, and which earned Helen Hayes awards in 2004 for Nelson as lead actor and Kasi Campbell as director.

Campbell called the re-teaming of herself, Nelson and Montgomery for a play by Greenberg "serendipitous," and she said she enjoys the playwright's quirky approach and his focus on specific historical periods.

She said of Nelson, whose supporting actor nod brings his total to six, "That man is a comic genius. ... Our relationship is so symbiotic, it is almost like we can finish each other's sentences and thoughts."

Illona Kessel is also a frequent attendee at the Hayes awards for her work at Toby's. This is the Owings Mills resident's ninth nomination. She won in 2004 for her choreography of Ragtime at Toby's.

Curry was nominated last year for her supporting role in Godspell at Toby's.

This year, the Catonsville resident was recognized for playing Aida, an enslaved princess who falls in love with a solider and must choose between her love affair and leading her people to freedom.

Curry is on her way to New York for a role in the pre-Broadway tour of Barbie, the Musical, Orenstein said.

"I think that Aida was the springboard of a great future career for her," Orenstein said. "We were ... so happy to be able to help someone develop their talents, show their talents and be rewarded for their talents.

This year's nominations bring the total to 47 for Toby's, which has previously won six, and 37 for Rep Stage, which has won seven.

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