Immersive ‘Chorus Line’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre is a singular sensation

The musical stands the test of time with powerful poignancy.

A beloved Broadway musical about singer-dancer-actors aspiring to a job on stage so they don’t have to wait tables is performed in a deliciously convivial dinner theater by a gifted cast of singer-dancer-actors who, before the show and at intermission, also genially wait on tables. The experience of that apt convergence in real-time is partly why A Chorus Line now playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre is a singular sensation.

The show is nearly half a century old yet scarcely shows its age. The script drops the names of a few celebrities who are no longer in the news, but mainly it consists of mini autobiographies told and sung by young performers during an audition. Drawn from real ensemble dancers’ shared stories, the book and lyrics stand the test of time today with powerfully personal poignancy.

The ‘A Chorus Line’ ensemble. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

In the solo number “I Can Do That,” for instance, Nicky Kaider as Mike delivers with spectacular athleticism the thrilling backstory of a boy inspired to become a dancer. In “Nothing,” Leela Dawson in outstanding voice as Diana sings a wrenching solo that both sends up actor training exercises and bewails a student’s anguish at failing. Dawson as Diana sings equally outstandingly in “What I Did for Love” about the passion and ambition of a young artist facing career instability and rejection.

The most dynamic dance solo was Lydia Gifford’s as Cassie, once a star but no longer, imploring her ex the director for a job in the chorus (choreography by Vincent Musgrave). And the production’s acting pinnacle — sans song and dance — was Paul’s monologue played by Brian Dauglash, who held the audience in rapt silence with his tortured memory of growing up unmanly (“I didn’t know how to be a boy”) and being molested in a movie theater.

There are also group numbers that give personal voice to experiences the characters have in common, such as in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen, Hello Love “— an amusing explication of puberty pangs — which the cast has great fun with.

Throughout, the characters’ lives and dreams come through with the immediacy of the moment, as if in cinematic closeup, and each performer conveys a physicality that establishes vivid individuality (reflected in rehearsal wear coordinated by Janine Sunday). If the sometimes uncertain group choreo was not always greater than the sum of its parts, the distinctive character of each dancer in the dance was never in doubt.

TOP LEFT: Nicky Kaider (Mike); TOP RIGHT: Lydia Gifford (Cassie); ABOVE LEFT: Leela Dawson (Diana); ABOVE RIGHT: Brian Dauglash (Paul), in ‘A Chorus Line.’ Photos by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

That personal and relatable presence of each unsung and anonymous member of the ensemble was among A Chorus Line’s lasting innovations. The men who originated the iconic, award-winning show — Michael Bennett (direction and choreography), James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante (book), Marvin Hamlisch (music), and Edward Kleban (lyrics) — are all now deceased. But in A Chorus Line, they left behind broken theatrical ground, not only in musical structure but also in topicality (sexuality, gender policing, body dysmorphia) and intentional representation of ethnic and racial diversity — a panoply of inclusivity brought beautifully to life at Toby’s by a company directed with keen sensitivity by Mark Minnick.

Jeffrey Shankle (Zach) and the cast of ‘A Chorus Line.’ Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Looking at A Chorus Line through a lens of contemporary theater best practice, one can note that as written the director character Zach —  who puts the supplicant applicants through their paces like a taskmaster and picks favorites from his god mic like a martinet  — keeps intact the great man leader model recently deconstructed as toxic. To this production’s credit, however, Jeffrey Shankle plays Zach unabrasively, and in a nicely collaborative gesture joins the chorus for the elegant finale in top-hat-and-tails (designed by Kansas City Costumes).

Typically set on the bare stage of a Broadway theater, A Chorus Line at Toby’s plays in the round surrounded by three tiers of dining tables. The sole scenic element is a white tape across the floor marking where the cast will form the chorus line. But the wraparound instrumental and choral sound in the space is lovely and lush (musical director and conductor, Ross Scott Rawlings; sound designer, Mark Smedley), and beams of illumination respond as if sentient to the fluid movement of performers about the space (lighting design, Lynn Joslin).

I saw the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line shortly after it opened, and I remember it as a theater-about-theater time capsule framed in a proscenium arch. Yet what Toby’s amazing immersive approach reveals is how far into the future this very particular work of musical theater would sustain universal emotional resonance.

This was my first visit to Toby’s Dinner Theatre, and I can’t think of a better show with which to discover the great food and camaraderie of this gem of a venue.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 30-minute intermission for refreshments.

A Chorus Line plays through March 10, 2024, at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, MD. Tickets ($69–$86) can be purchased by calling 410-730-8311 or online.

The menu is here.

The playbill is here.

The trailer is on Instagram here.

A Chorus Line
Conceived and Originally Directed and Choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Co-Choreographed by Bob Avian

THE CAST (in alphabetical order
Frank: Dereck Atwater
Sheila: Jessica Barraclough
Don: Brandon Bedore
Richie: Quadry Brown
Butch: Justin Calhoun
Vicki: Aria Renee Curameng
Paul: Brian Dauglash
Diana: Leela Dawson
Maggie: Emily Flack
Cassie: Lydia Gifford
Larry: Andrew Gordon
Mark: Angelo Harrington II
Mike: Nicky Kaider
Kristine: Amanda Kaplan Landstrom
Connie: Kiana King
Val: Alexis Krey Bedore
Greg: Ariel Messeca
Al: Ryan Sellers
Roy: Adam Shank
Zach: Jeffrey Shankle
Bobby: David Singleton
Bebe: Patricia “Pep” Targete
Trish: Danielle Tuomey
Judy: Julia Williams

Conductor/Keys: Ross Scott Rawlings, Nathan Scavilla
Reeds/Woodwinds I: Steve Haaser, Charlene McDaniel, Katie Ravenwood
Reeds/Woodwinds II: Steve Haaser, Denis Malloy, Charlene McDaniel, Katie Ravenwood
Trumpet: Mike Barber, Tony Neenan
Trombone: Patrick Crossland, Jay Ellis, Don Patterson
Guitar: Daniel Lewis, Rick Peralta, Chris Peterson, Kim Spath
Bass: Matthew Carroll, Linda Cote, Michael Kellam
Drums/Percussion: Bob LaForce, Brett Schatz

Director: Mark Minnick
Choreographer: Vincent Musgrave
Associate Choreographer: Lacy Kraszewski
Music Director/Conductor: Ross Scott Rawlings
Assistant Conductor: Nathan Scavilla
Scenic Designer: David A. Hopkins
Lighting Designer: Lynn Joslin
Sound Designer: Mark Smedley
Costume Designer: Kansas City Costumes
Costume Coordinator: Janine Sunday
Properties Designer: Shane Lowry
Dance Captain: David Singleton, Julia Williams
Production Stage Manager: Cheryl Stansfield
Assistant Stage Manager: Sarah Tossman
Run Crew: Tori Alioto, Kristin Rigsby, Sarah Tossman, Vanessa Vincent, Brian Wensus
Technical Director: Jimmy Engelkemier
Assistant Technical Director: Johnny Pantazis
Set Construction: David A. Hopkins, Quadry Brown, Jimmy Engelkemier, Johnny Pantazis
Light Board Operators: Jimmy Engelkemier, Heather Williams, Amy Williamson
Sound Board Operators: Betsy Burnett, Ethan Hogarty, Johnny Pantazis
Head Wardrobe: Janine Sunday
Costume Shop Assistants: Sarah King, Carrie Seidman

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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