Toby’s Dinner Theatre stages ‘Godspell,’ taking pandemic performing ‘Day by Day’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Godspell' at Toby's (Part 1)

Are you looking for a community theater that’s open as we launch into the new year?

Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Maryland, presents “Godspell” now through Feb. 28, its first production of the show since 2004, when it earned five Helen Hayes nods.

“Very catchy and very singable,” founder Toby Orenstein told WTOP.

Based on the 1971 Broadway musical written by John-Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked”), the story weaves parables from the Gospel of St. Matthew featuring Biblical characters like Jesus, Judas and John the Baptist.

“A parable is a story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson,” Associate Producer Mark Minnick told WTOP. “We go through parables of the Persistent Widow, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Good Samaritan, the Sower, the Prodigal Son, and through those we learn the lessons and how we can apply them to today, to life.”

How does the story come to life visually?

“We’re set our production in a park in Columbia,” Minnick said. “Projected on the walls [are] iconic locations of Columbia. … It pays homage to Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia. … Anybody with a connection to Columbia … will grasp that right away, but if you don’t know who Jim Rouse is, it doesn’t matter. It’s still very accessible.”

The park sets the scene for the show’s themes to blossom.

“Here they are in a beautiful outside park … but the technology is keeping them in their phones instead of looking up, around and at each other,” Minnick said. “The characters learn to disconnect from the pressures and stress of modern-day life and technology, to stop for a minute, listen, learn, truly be present and come together as a community.”

Most importantly, you get the iconic Schwartz songbook, including the smash hit “Day by Day,” which reached No. 13 on the Billboard pop singles chart back in 1972.

“It’s ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,’ ‘Save the People,’ ‘Day By Day,’ ‘By My Side,’ ‘Turn Back, O Man,’ ‘Light of the World,’ the score is great,” Minnick said. “I got rid of all of my record albums, [but] my original album of ‘Godspell’ is one that I saved. It touched people, it reached people, it connected on many different levels to people.”

As you take in the show, you can enjoy a dinner menu revamped since the pandemic.

“We’ve switched from our traditional buffet to plated table-served dinner service,” Minnick said. “Our customers are raving about it. We’re serving prime rib, salmon and many other entrees, and customers are thinking they may want to continue this way.”

Similarly, the cast of 10 actors is socially distanced from each other and the audience.

“All the actors wear masks, but when you see them, you can hardly tell,” Orenstein said. “They are all 6 feet apart. They are 6 feet away from our customers. We only are seating 80 or 85 people. … It’s an opportunity to give actors work, to have audiences come in to have a little food, see a wonderful show and feel a little relief.”

Yes, in a season of pandemic performances, you just have to take things “Day by Day.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Godspell' at Toby's (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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