Review: GODSPELL Speaks to Contemporary Audiences At Toby's In Columbia

Ethics Are Still Relevant

By: Sep. 05, 2021
Review: GODSPELL Speaks to Contemporary Audiences At Toby's In Columbia

Are you in the mood for an ensemble romp, some familiar stories, an ethics-heavy main character, beautiful harmonies and a good meal? GODSPELL is at Toby's Dinner And Show in Columbia, Maryland, through the end of October 2021, and I recommend it.

Based on the Gospel of Matthew, GODSPELL was written by John-Michael Tebelak as his masters thesis at Carnegie Mellon, and performed at Carnegie Mellon by theater department students in 1970. Stephen Schwartz, a Carnegie Mellon alum, came aboard as composer for an off-Broadway version in '71. This production was directed by John-Michael Tebelak, and played until '76 when it moved, with Tebelak as director, to play on Broadway for a year. Meanwhile, in '72 & '73, GODSPELL was performed in at least 4 other countries, including South Africa, where it contributed to the unravelling of apartheid. The major Hollywood film version was released in 1973. The only thing left of the original music is "By My Side," with lyrics by Jay Hamburger and music by Peggy Gordon, both students from Carnegie Mellon. Here at home in Columbia, Toby Orenstein opened Toby's Dinner Theater in 1979 with a production of GODSPELL. She dedicates this production to the late Jim Rouse, beloved father of Columbia, whose spirit and influence are with us daily in a conspicuous lack of right angles.

Toby's is open for business, with adjustments for our pandemic times. Bring your vaccination card- you'll be required to show that you're 14 days past final vaccination before entering the building. Anyone under the age of 12 or those who are not yet fully vaccinated must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of performance. Audience members 18 and older must also show a photo ID.

Tables are spaced further apart than before; at a glance, it looks as if capacity has been decreased by about a third. Please wear your mask in the halls and restrooms. Salads and desserts are now brought to you by masked, gloved server/actors, and you will be invited personally to visit the buffet, where there are disposable gloves for you to cover your serving hand. If you're ambidextrous, perhaps wear gloves on both hands, in case you switch at the shrimp station. The vegan Linguini Galilee with olives, rosemary and sun-dried tomatoes is a thematic newcomer, but I hope it remains as a favorite, like the decidedly non-vegan (but vegetarian) Spinach Funque. More about the menu can be found here:

A delightful cast of stalwart Toby's regulars forms a lovely ensemble around Justin Calhoun in the lead as God/Jesus, creating beautiful moments individually and in groups as Disciples. One of the remarkable things about the Toby's players is that the stand-out stars of previous shows step into supporting roles with absolutely NO upstaging. If you don't immediately recognize leads from ELF, MAMMA MIA, KINKY BOOTS, DREAMGIRLS, THE LITTLE MERMAID and GYPSY, they're doing their jobs as actors. Justin Calhoun is warm, fierce, athletic and appropriately bearded. Crystal Freeman has a voice well worth the price of admission. MaryKate Brouillet's featured vocal number is lovely. Shane Lowry is beautiful and tragic as Judas.

Directors Mark Minnik and David James conceptualize the show in a contemporary manner, updating the storytelling to include current cultural iconography. There's a great deal of interpretation- yet the language has been left largely intact, and will resonate with those whose preference leans in the direction of the King James version of these stories. Minnik's choreography is energetic, organic, and sometimes chaotic. A few modular set pieces move nimbly around the space and help facilitate 3-dimensional action. Technically, this show isn't fancy, but scenic & lighting designer David A. Hopkins uses basic lighting, fog, haze and strobe effects to create familiar ambiance, otherworldly atmosphere and some startlingly powerful moments of breathless drama.

Musical director and tiny orchestra conductor Ross Scott Rawlings engineers superlative harmonies and stellar accompaniment for each number and interstitials. Inspired riffs help connect the flower-child origins of this show with our contemporary eclectic musical smorgasboard. The musicians are recognized onstage as full members of the ensemble cast, despite being tucked in a balcony box.

This production of GODSPELL is simultaneously current and an icon of the hippie movement. Projected black and white photographs of scenes probably recognizable to Columbia locals, sixties tropes of movement and music, contemporary casual costuming and a few topical additions add up to a production that unites our roots with our future, highlighting the perpetually relevant ideas of devotion, love and commitment to the care of others.

GODSPELL plays at Toby's through October 31, 2021 . The following production, Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS, plays through January 2022.

Toby's Dinner Theatre is in Columbia, Maryland, easily accessed from 29 Southbound, with plenty of free parking all around the building.

Photo: Shane Lowry and Justin Calhoun in GODSPELL

Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia

5900 Symphony Woods Road

Columbia, MD 21044

For additional information including pricing, buffet menu and directions, visit

For tickets, phone the box office at 410-730-8311, 301-596-6161 or 1-800-88-TOBYS

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