It’s become an institution for the theater community in Howard County, Maryland. Toby’s Dinner Theatre hosts “Home for the Holidays” now through Jan. 3 in Columbia.
“We have 7,000 subscribers … and we have been closed for eight months,” founder and owner Toby Orenstein told WTOP. “We said, ‘Why don’t we just do something small, not a big show, let’s follow all the rules, 6 feet apart.’ … This way, subscribers will have a way to do something and come see us, because they’re like family to us.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the theater had initially planned “Elf: The Musical.”
“Back in March, when we closed down, we were in the middle of ‘Kinky Boots,’ and we were over 70% sold for ‘Elf,'” associate producer Mark Minnick told WTOP. “We had to make the decision not to do ‘Elf’ because of the governmental restrictions. … We said, ‘We need to create our own holiday musical,’ so we created ‘Home for the Holidays.'”
The special holiday show launched Nov. 12 with all of your favorite carols.
“It’s a musical celebration of the season, featuring songs like ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’ ‘Deck the Halls,’ ‘O Holy Night,’ ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain,'” Minnick said. “You’ll see Santa and Mrs. Claus, Frosty, Santa’s elves, all of your favorite Toby’s performers. … It’s more of a celebratory musical revue than a story.”
Visually, the dinner theater is transformed into a festive winter wonderland.
“Let’s deck this place out like it’s never been decked out before,” Minnick said. “Our lobby is beautifully and tastefully decorated. … There’s fireplaces in the corner that glow with family portraits. … Wreaths, garlands, the menorah, Kwanzaa candles, we have everything. There’s a beautiful Santa’s sleigh in the middle of the stage.”
“A little snowman grows up and becomes a big dancing snowman,” Orenstein said.
The performers aim to dazzle so much that the safety elements become invisible.
“If we’re going to do this, we have to do it right,” Orenstein said. “We spent over a month fixing the theater, getting all the duct work in the ceilings professionally cleaned, then I bought UV lighting, there’s all kinds of sanitation centers all over, we take temperatures, so from the moment you walk in, you feel that we’re caring for you.”
“We’ve had approximately 40 or so people a night, which is under 20% of our typical occupancy,” Minnick said. “Everyone in the building has face coverings. … Customers may remove their masks for dining, then the masks go back on, and the performers wear [transparent] face shields the entire performance that cover their face.”
Obviously, the venue had to find an alternative to their usual dinner buffet.
“We have replaced our traditional buffet with a plated served meal,” Minnick said. “I’ve enjoyed the roast salmon with honey citrus glaze and the prime rib. They’re upscale, high quality dinner options served at the table. People are loving it. It makes me think our buffet may not come back because people are loving it so much!”
Most of all, it’s been a warm holiday feeling seeing the gang back again.
“We got there for our first rehearsal and brought back some of our regulars who have been at Toby’s for 30 years, and we started singing, and I got really emotional,” Minnick said. “It’s been eight months of not knowing and wondering and hoping and people losing their jobs. … We did it. We did it smartly and safely. It was just so joyous.”