Review: Heartwarming Sentiment and Exceptional Performances Prove IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE at Toby's Dinner Theater

Enjoy this family-oriented holiday favorite through January 15th, 2023.

By: Dec. 03, 2022
Review: Heartwarming Sentiment and Exceptional Performances Prove IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE at Toby's Dinner Theater
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"Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings." From the prevalence of bells in the show's score to the precious optimism of little Zuzu's proclamation, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE THE MUSICAL at Toby's Dinner Theater is a breath of heavenly hope.

The musical adaptation of the beloved holiday classic is not a live recreation of the Frank Capra film. First off, it's in color. Second, it's structured differently. Third, while it skips a few iconic sequences, it adds dimensionality to several previously underdrawn characters, a sense of urgency, and a bit of silliness. I consider that a fair tradeoff, and it feels true to the spirit of the original movie. From the Toby's homepage for the show, "Toby's original adaptation breathes musical life into a familiar story, while retaining the warmth and humor of the original." I don't always agree with the press blurbs of shows, but in this case, I very much do. This musical rendition successfully captures the tale of a man's community service despite his thwarted dreams.

This adaptation, created in 1989 by Toby Orenstein, David Nehls (music and lyrics) and Michael Tilford (book), has enjoyed regular rotation in the former Baltimore Toby's location as well as the Columbia community anchor. Two actors have been with the show since its inception: Andrew Horn, who originated the role of Uncle Billy, and Susan Thornton, who created Mrs. Hatch and marks her sixth performance of the role. Both of these seasoned pros are imminently watchable, and by turns hilarious, relatable and touching.

The show is structured differently to the movie, and gives meatier roles to the angels. Functioning as interstitials, Clarence and Joseph provide continuity, narrative and commentary. In action, they provide hilarity, surprises and stellar showmanship. David James as Clarence is naive in the ways of humanity, and DeCarlo Raspberry's Joseph acts as Clarence's guide to prepare him for his mission. The pair have admirable chemistry, perfect timing, and mad skills in song and dance. They also display a masterful ability to ham it up or pull it back as the scene requires, and it's a treat to watch these experienced triple-threat performers.

Five young actors make their debut with Toby's in this production, though I only saw three, as childrens' roles are double cast. Gwyneth Porter is appropriately adorable as Zuzu, and her every word is crystal clear. Jana Sharbaugh as Young Mary/ Janey has a composed stage presence that belies her youth, as well as very good timing. As Young George/ Pete, Lucas Rahaim is upright in carriage and letter perfect on his lines.

Gerald Jordan, who nailed Apollo Creed in Toby's production of ROCKY, plays best pal Sam Wainwright with humor, easy likeability and, though obviously capable of serious upstaging, he entirely fails to do so. Students at the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts are fortunate to have him as an instructor, mentor and guide.

The role of Violet, performed by Santina Maiolatesi (and, man, can that woman DANCE) is, in this rendition of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, more obviously a woman of a certain profession compared to the film, in which it was hinted at, probably due to Hays Code strictures. She's spunky and snappy, and delightful to watch.

Justin Calhoun, longtime Toby's leading man, embraces a "Dad role" in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE THE MUSICAL. As George Bailey, he is visibly frustrated by his inability to shake off "the dust of this crummy little town" to see the world, even more than Jimmy Stewart seemed to be. His pleasing vocals capably carry seven numbers of the show. As Mary Hatch-Bailey, MaryKate Brouillet is warm and sympathetic, and her singing is always a treat.

AJ Whittenberger, whom I first encountered as an acrobatic carpet in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at Toby's, has come into his own as an adult actor, bringing to life Harry Bailey in his 32nd Toby's show. His Harry is full of brotherly sass and all-American-boy sensibility. Most of us can see something of someone we love in him in this role.

Perpetual favorite and frequent MC at Toby's is Robert Biedermann, giving wicked, moneygrubbing life to Mr. Potter, our antagonist of the evening. He's beguilingly Machiavellian as Mr. Potter, with a vocal range of volume and inflection that conveys what his wheelchair-bound body does not. With the wheelchair- a beautiful vintage piece, by the way- he is slickly skillful in making it move in lively, entertaining ways.

As flustered accountant Mr. Carter, Jordan B. Stocksdale is befuddled and stuffy, yet not entirely unsympathetic. Costume Designer Sarah King locks down the era of the show with accurate fashions, wigs and footwear. They're splendid to look at, with a richness of hue that enhances the 1940s styles in a way that Capra's black and white film did not.

Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin delivers beautiful lighting effects, particularly at the bank and the Old Granville House, and I'm enchanted by her floors. Scenic Designer David A Hopkins gives us locations with a few set pieces, some of which are magnificently transformational. My companion and I marvel at one such beautiful construction, and the required bridge is gorgeous.

Tina Marie DeSimone, whose strong voice and comic timing grace her performance as Aunt Tillie, as Choreographer also provides the cast with movement that is a stylistic departure from many past Toby's productions. This fresh take, along with a brisk pace, injects new flavor into a show many of us watch annually and may have practically memorized. Inserting surprises, visual, auditory or otherwise, into a familiar show is a risky business- one runs the chance of "ruining" someone's favorite. These surprises, however, have the effect of separating the show from the film, so it's less a whole cranberry vs. canned cranberry sauce thing and more of a pumpkin vs. apple pie thing.

The script could use trimming. Act I contains 9 scenes and 11 songs, with one reprise. Act II has 7 scenes, with 7 fresh songs plus 3 reprises. Several musical numbers don't move the plot, and some reprised numbers don't warrant repetition. It's been suggested that perhaps I don't like musicals. I do; I just have exacting standards. If you're not as persnickety about scripts as I- and few people are- you may not consider this a detriment to the production. If you're a theatergoer who likes musical numbers every few minutes, it's an enhancement, and you'll enjoy IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE THE MUSICAL even more. Director Toby Orenstein, assisted by Mark Minnick and Tina Marie DeSimone, keeps action moving and audience perspective shifting so everyone in the audience gets a great view of some sequences and a good view of the others.

Speaking of pie- there's no pie. Choose between cheesecake and chocolate cake for your served dessert, and the ice cream bar has returned to the lobby after a Covid hiatus. Dinner itself is full of high-quality offerings, and tonight's special souvenir-glass drink is The Special Occasion, which is a frozen hot chocolate and quite tasty.

Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings' mini-orchestra backs up the songs with lovely music, and adds auditory atmosphere to other sequences. Steve Haaser on woodwinds marks particularly poignant moments, while Brett Schatz on percussion gives life to the sounds of bells that are so prominent in the score. Reenie Codelka is tonight's Conductor and keeps the band tight and on time.

In all aspects, from seating to service to food presentation to the show itself, Toby's consistently delivers as far as showmanship, production quality and customer service. This show is no exception. I appreciate that the "Christmas" facet of the production is not overdone with decor draped on every surface. The show feels inclusive and accessible to those whose holiday traditions differ from the ones celebrated by the Bailey family. Bring your family to meet the Baileys this holiday season- the Toby's family will make you glad you did.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE THE MUSICAL plays at Toby's through January 15th, 2023. The following production, SOMETHING ROTTEN! is scheduled to run January 20th through March 19th, 2023.

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

Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia is located at

5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD 21044

For additional information including pricing, buffet menu and directions, visit Toby's website. For tickets, phone the box office at 410-730-8311, Monday through Sunday 10 am - 8 pm, or buy them on Ticketmaster

Doors open at 6pm Tuesday through Saturday evenings, with dinner from 6:30-7:20 for an 8 pm showtime. Wednesday and Sunday Matinees, house opens at 10 am and the buffet is 10:30-11:50 am for a 12:30 pm show. Sunday evening, you may enter at 5 pm and supper is at 5:30 pm, with a 7 pm showtime. The show runs about one and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission.

Photo: L to R- DeCarlo Raspberry, Justin Calhoun and David James as Joseph, George Bailey and Clarence

Photo Credit: Jeri Tidwell Photography

Final factoid: Paul McCartney (yes, that one) had been working on a new musical production of Frank Capra's classic film, which had been scheduled to debut in late 2020. Since 2019, however, there's been no new news about it.