‘Hot Nostalgia’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia by Amanda Gunther

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Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia is off to a sensational start for their new season. A bright and brilliant beginning to the new year comes in the form of a dazzling musical revue — Hot Nostalgia — an original musical revue conceived by Toby Orenstein, Ross Scott Rawlings and Douglas Lawler. Encompassing music from the 1930s to the 1970s Hot Nostalgia is a stream of incredible hits that has the audience singing and dancing along, clapping their hands and whooping and hollering for all of the crazy dance performances that happen throughout the show. Its one big ball of fun; a feel-good musical that will brighten everyone’s day.

David James and Janine Sunday. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
David James and Janine Sunday. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Director and Choreographer Lawrence B. Munsey works miracles of amazement coaxing astonishing sounds from ten talented performers. Watching them together on stage is like watching a group of ten good friends paling around, living up the good times with one another, and simply having a blast as they sing and dance and fool around for the sake of having a laugh. There’s an organic feel to the chemistry of this tight-knit group; a real collective soul that radiates from one performer to the next that just beams a vibe of enjoyment directly out to the audience, really making this one stellar show.

Munsey’s choreography is no simple task. Taking songs that flow seamlessly one into the next and having the dance routines shift subtly between them is a challenging feat; one that he approaches with confidence and is ultimately successful in executing. The group numbers — from the opening sequence of “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” which features several wildcat jitterbuggin’ swinging dances — to the more casual and funky “Surfin’ USA” — the dancing is so lively its electric. Some of the steps may be simplistic in nature, but they are always perfectly synchronized and make the ensemble look sharp and classy during their performance. Making flawless transitions through over 165 songs (ranging somewhere between 107 and 171 depending on who you talk to) is an accomplishment to lay your hat on, and with this production Musney is a raging success.

Making those dance moves all that much more impressive is the dynamic relationship coming from the ten person ensemble. Listed only by their names, they play along with one another throughout the performance, sometimes adapting characters sometimes just singing as themselves, but either way it’s incredible beyond compare. They energy that they share is vivacious and wildly contagious— making you wish you were up scooting around the dance floor with them (and some of you seated close enough to the stage might just get that chance!) From the classic swinging sound of big band right through the hippie grooves of disco this ensemble offer something for everyone and no one leaves disappointed.

They look the look and they dance the dance but best of all they sound phenomenal. Ten voices never sounded so strong and so alive. The ten performers are always in tune with one another, creating perfect harmonies, and they are always on tempo and respond to one another particularly well during group numbers with one soloist where the others sing backup. It’s amazing to see how well these ten people make one big musical revue a smashing success.

It’s hard to know where to even start when it comes to singling out the solo performers as Munsey has done such an incredible job of fitting them each to their strengths. Every person gets their fair share of solos and featured moments; all of which add levels of sheer brilliance to this already amazing masterpiece.

Starting the ball rolling is Prince Havely. With his easy vocals he slides like a smooth viper into numbers like “Minnie The Moocher” calling the ensemble along in true Cab Calloway style. His charming smile only enhances his gentle vocal work, plucking true joy from each song he sings, especially in his duet “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with David Little. Havely showcases his classical doo-wop sound in “Sh-Boom” swaying and grooving with the others and later shows us just how versatile he can be with his groovy and laid back rendition of “Under The Boardwalk.” A real smooth cat with an edge to his voice, Havely is a great addition to this cast.

Easing down the line we find the talented Debra Buonaccorsi with her sweet songbird vocals waiting to welcome us into warm numbers like “It’s Been A Long Long Time” the hit that became famous at the end of WWII. Buonaccorsi switches it up for some upbeat noodling as one of three in “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” where she and Janine Sunday and Ashley Parker shimmy and bubble their song with cute smiles and buzzing harmonies. Of course her comic aspects are put to good use as well when she sings the iconic duet “I Got You Babe” as Cher herself, the unique sound accompanied by Tina DeSimone as Sonny. Buonaccorsi is a warm and sweet note of pleasant performance all round, her best performance coming late in the show with “Big Yellow Taxi.”

Aside from her momentary crossover into the male gender, Tina DeSimone brings a great deal of strong character to the revue. Sizzling a sassy rendition of “Leader of the Pack” (whilst David James spends every moment of this song trying to steal the scene on his ragin’ invisible motorbike) DeSimone lends her uniquely rich sound to several popular classics. Bringing a level of elegant jazz to numbers like “Taking A Chance On Love” and driving the trio of Jeffrey Shankle and David James in “Friendship” a Cole Porter staple, DeSimone is a regular firecracker. She’s grooving at her finest when channeling Carole King for “I Feel The Earth Move.”

Shawn Kettering. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Shawn Kettering. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Janine Sunday brings her bright classical sound to the mix in a number of slower more emotional songs. In “Forever and Ever” a duet with Jeffrey Shankle, her voice is simply gorgeous, the way her words melt bliss into each note is an aural pleasure you will be delighted to hear. Her melancholy rendition of “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” easily brings a tear to your eye and when she switches gears for “The White Cliffs Of Dover” we hear that song with all the emotion its intended to have.

Artists may have some repeat numbers appear throughout the performance but it’s definitely a battle in Graceland over who is channeling The King more thoroughly when it comes down to Shawn Kettering and David Little. Kettering takes Elvis’s “Jailhouse Rock” to new heights with his rich timbre and crazy dance moves, making those girls swoon like only The King can; while Little masters the pelvic thrust and that blazing fiery soul for “Heartbreak Hotel.” Both men are extremely talented with the manipulation of their voices and both showcase a range of talented duets with other performers. Little has the energy of a hundred men when hopping and bopping to “Rock Around The Clock” and Kettering manages to execute a hybrid replication of The Big Bopper and Jerry Lee Lewis when up on the diner counter singing “Chantilly Lace.” These two blokes are unstoppable — keep your eyes peeled for all of their other awesome numbers throughout the performance.

Take every crooner you ever loved in the 40s and blend them all together, the result is Jeffrey Shankle crooning away in songs like “I’m So In Love With You,” and “Love Me Tender.” The man has a way to your heart — straight through your ears — with his ooey gooey love songs, and his pristinely perfected voice will have you entranced. But don’t be fooled, he’s no one trick pony; Shankle just as easily belts out the jazzy upbeat “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog” and finds his place among The Beatles and The Village People just as easily as he slides a slow tune. Easily adaptable and down to earth in all that he sings, Shankle is a sensational part of the cast that really elevates the quality of the performance to high heights.

With a big bad belt and an explosive attitude the show welcomes Ashley Parker for high energy numbers like “Proud Mary.” Channeling every bit of Tina Turner and adding her own unique twist to the song, Parker makes the audience dizzy with delight as she rolls on that river. Her voice is as versatile as her solo song selections, “My Guy” acting as a sweet soother and showing off her dainty side. Parker is blazing with passion during “Bad Girl” and really lights up the stage with her crazy rendition of “Purple People Eater.”

It’s impossible to pick a ‘lead’ in such a fully rounded ensemble where every person is given several moments to shine, but in this case the decision is made clear — split right down the genders — easily identified by his shenanigans and her mighty vocal prowess. David James and Heather Marie Beck are easily the runaway idols of this musical revue. James is an absolute riot, his comical timing and zany characters making the audience laugh so hard you’ll nearly burst; while Beck showcases a full and powerful vocal range offering the most diverse selection of songs throughout the performance.

Beck puts the POW in girl power with her rendition of “I Am Woman” bringing an explosiveness to rival Vesuvius to the stage. She switches easily and honestly from crazy fun numbers like “The Hop” and “Heard It Through The Grapevine” to more pristinely emotional numbers like “Rainy Days and Mondays.” Regardless of the song she is fully present on the stage, utilizing her incredible voice to its full potential and importing all the right emotions to the songs that need them, while letting loose and just having fun with the songs that are meant to be strictly entertaining. Keep your eye on her in the soda shop scenes for a terrific surprise; she is a stellar talent and a fine addition to this cast.

David James takes the cake, and the icing and everything else along with it as the show-stealing spotlight loving king. He’s nothing short of superb in each of his comical characters (which may or may not include Ringo Starr, Elton John, and Alan Sherman whilst lost at Camp Grenada) and brings such a zingy zany quality to the show that you can’t take your eyes off him. With great classics like “Crocodile Rock” and “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” you’d swear a bluebird has taken hold of his soul and flown it straight up into every song. Whether he’s cocking up for “Henry the 8th” or goofing off while the girls sing “Lollipop” at him, James is a winner all around and is not to be missed.

Tina DeSimone. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Tina DeSimone. Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

You won’t find a more entertaining musical revue than Hot Nostalgia anywhere else this year, I guarantee it. Ten friends having fun, bringing you the music that you love to hear; how could you ask for a better show?

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Hot Nostalgia plays through Sunday January 27, 2013 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia – at 5900 Symphony Woods Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 995-1969, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.