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BWW Review: SHOW BOAT Sails Winning Course At Toby's Dinner Theatre


Once upon a time, 'musical theater' was a vaudevillian pastiche of variety acts, songs, comedy bits and melodrama. The 'integrated musical,' in which each song serves to move the plot or reveal character, was not introduced until 1943, in OKLAHOMA!. The musical SHOW BOAT, written in 1927 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, predates that by quite a bit, but is one of the earliest examples of a character-driven musical show with a cohesive plotline.

I'd love to be able to say SHOW BOAT is an antiquated piece of historical theatre, but "colored folks work while the white folks play," institutionalized racism, abandonment, and guns in inappropriate places is sadly relevant right now. If you're willing to accept these thematic elements, and the contextual use of "the 'n' word," it's a worthy outing. If you've always loved SHOW BOAT despite its cultural discomfiture and patchwork scripting, it's a fun production.

A trip to Columbia, Maryland from Baltimore City isn't a prohibitive journey. Other guests arrive from Bowie and DC; the theater is right off Route 29, so it's handily accessible. There's plenty of free parking all around the building, and the option of dropoff at the door for the main party to enter while the driver goes to park. From South Baltimore, I expect a 35 to 45 minute drive. I made it in 30, but I might'nt've been adhering to the speed limit in its strictest sense. Traffic was co-operative.

If a 6:00 to 6:30 arrival time seems out of line, you've probably not been doing dinner theatre lately. It's pretty standard. And you're having dinner. Because of this, I make no mention of nearby places to eat before the show. A post-show cocktail spot? Perhaps Union Jack's, near the Mall, or Victoria Gastro Pub at the intersection of 108 and Snowden River Parkway.

We arrive around 6:15 and are seated by 6:30. The spacing is a bit tight, so skip the hoopskirts and choose a small shoulder bag, or leave the giant pocketbook at the table with the rest of your party to avoid smashing seated folk in the head with it. The buffet dinner has an attractive fresh salad bar (including optional anchovy for the Caesar salad) and amusing show-themed names for all of its hot items, which include sliced roasts, pasta, chicken, vegetables and potatoes, as well as shrimp cocktail, fruit and cheese, seafood pasta salad and some delightfully fresh, lightly dressed coleslaw. There is something named jambalaya, but it's a chicken and sauce dish, so don't be fooled. The signature side dish of Toby's, Spinach Phunque, is a version of creamed spinach and seems to include some egg. I like it, but I'm fond of creamed spinach. My companion, who doesn't like creamed spinach, tastes it and fails to change his mind. I order the special Show Boat cocktail, the Cotton Blossom, which is a strawberry banana daiquiri, rimmed in sugar and adorned with both whipped topping and cotton candy, which could be a diabetes-inducing disaster, but absolutely isn't and I enjoy it. The beverage offerings are numerous, both alcoholic and non-, and prices are reasonable.There are two choices for served dessert, and an ice-cream bar which has many topping options, none of them nuts. If you have allergy, gluten or vegetarian/vegan concerns, visit

It is traditional that the actors also perform as wait staff, pre-show and at intermission, so they disappear to transform about 40 minutes before showtime, taking intermission drink orders and dropping desert. Our server, Russell, is speedy, professional, friendly and remembers everything. He also turns out to be the show's leading man, Gaylord Ravenal, and quite an excellent vocalist is Russell Rinker.

The pre-show recognition of birthdays and other special occasions seems likely to be a stalling tactic for actor preparation and clearing the stage of food service apparatus. Robert John Biedermann in the persona of Captain Andy Hawks acts as Emcee/Ringmaster and handily keeps the crowd amused while it waits for the metaphoric curtain to rise.

A small live orchestra is cleverly hidden somewhere on the premises providing the show's music, and I wonder all evening where they are stashed. Musical director and our conductor tonight is Ross Scott Rawlings. Though the sound balance is inconsistent, I particularly enjoy Patricia Wnek on violin and Charlene McDaniel on flute. The musical motif of the show, Ol' Man River, repeats several times, to eerily wonderful effect when layered with Alma Redemption Mater during Act II.

Direction in the round looks like a tricky proposition, but is deftly handled by Toby Orenstein and Mark Minnick, who serves also as choreographer for the show. Andre Hinds, Anwar Thomas and DeCarlo Raspberry as the Stevedores are delightful in each song and dance number, and everyone in the ensemble cast appears several times in various capacities throughout each act. Particularly praiseworthy are the vocals, by both the lead characters and supporting ones. Abby Middleton as Magnolia Hawks has a sweet soprano voice, which blends well with Gaylord/Russell Rinker's in several numbers. In the character of Joe, Marquise White's rendition of Ol' Man River raises goosebumps, and anytime Samantha Deininger as Queenie opens her mouth, the world is suddenly a lovelier place. My favorite number, which has nothing at all to do with the plot, is Deininger and White's duet I Still Suits Me.

All actors are capable, sturdy and intrepid -Jane C. Boyle shows remarkable trust in her castmates when her character Parthy Ann Hawks faints during a dance number- as well as flexible and speedy, as this show requires multiple costume changes for everyone. AT Jones & Sons, provider of costuming, outfits everyone appropriately, and probably I'm the only one bothered by the expanse of leg showing between Ellie May's hem and boot-top. Elizabeth Rayca as Ellie May Chipley and Jeffrey Shankle as Frank Schultz provide a fun comic subplot and have excellent chemistry.

The sound tech is a bit spotty, but the lighting operation is quite smooth, and scene transitions are speedy. Every single staff member at Toby's is warm and helpful, and the atmosphere seems inclusive, though the audience was mostly white. In the lobby hang quilted fabric renditions of many of the shows Toby's has produced over its long history, charming and exquisite, and made the intermission restroom wait far more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Bathrooms are well-maintained and roomy, and at the sink, you can choose the water temperature your very own self.

Showtimes Tuesday through Saturday: doors open at 6 PM, buffet from 6:00 to 7:20, show at 8 PM.

Wednesday Matinee and Sunday Brunch: doors at 10:30, buffet from 10:30 to 11:50 AM, show at 12:30 PM

Sunday Evening: doors at 5:00 PM, buffet from 5-6:20 PM, show at 7:00 PM.

SHOW BOAT plays at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia through March 19, 2017.

For tickets, phone Toby's Dinner Theatre Box Office 410-730-8311 from 10 AM - 9 PM,

or visit

5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia MD 21044

Photo credit: Jerry Tidwell Photography

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