"At Toby’s, Millie is savvy, spirited and funny. .....The staging by Toby Orenstein and the choreography by Ilona Kessell are bright and lively, as always."
"Toby has done it again. She’s taken a thoroughly entertaining, up-beat Broadway musical that was designed to give a crowd a good time and made it work on her four-sided stage..... Thoroughly Modern Millie was and is a dance show, and choreographer Ilona Kessell takes full advantage of its opportunities as she puts her young, trim and energetic troupe through their paces. Most notable is her terrific work on hand gestures for the ensemble in everything from flapper romps to the Charleston. Of course, it helps that they have the hot sound of Douglas Lawler’s band.....The high energy/good time feel is re-emphasized by sharp and colorful costumes and warm, bright lighting."
"Toby’s mounts a dillie of a Millie. ..... Orenstein has a mother eagle’s eye for spotting strong collaborative talent that can serve up the live music, the costumes, the sound and lighting designs, and the all-important choreography on demand. Douglas Lawlor, Lawrence Munsey, Drew Dedrick, Lynn Joslin and especially the amazing dance mistress Ilona Kessell here again prove their value in delivering the goods."
"Thoroughly “Marvelous” Millie at Toby’s in Columbia. .....Production-wise, this production is nearly flawless. Helen Hayes award winner, Toby Orenstein, has created a fast-paced, exciting, often heart-pounding production. .....the entire show comes off as a fresh and innovative staging.....The choreography by multiple award-winner Ilona Kessell is thrilling, evocative of the period and absolutely astonishing. Many times there are 20 or more people dancing in that tight space (though as staged, you’d think it was Radio City in size!) doing intricate tap routines, dazzling lifts and dizzying spins."
~DC Broadway World
"Olney Theatre Center’s production of Anything Goes is a delightful confection that entertains the eye and ear without ever straining the mind. With a talented cast of singing, dancing actors and a full complement of Cole Porter songs, what more could anyone ask? .....As with most musicals of the period, the plot is simply a clothesline on which to hang the songs and musical numbers, staged by Ilona Kessell with the necessary élan. The zaniest may be “Heaven Hop” with its chorus line of masseurs in white and women in towels, but she’s equally skilled at blending the Charleston with tap in the first-act finale, and bringing out a full-stage revivalist frenzy for “Blow, Gabriel, Blow.”
".....Kessell’s dances, whether stage-filling production numbers or Fred-and-Ginger interludes, are unfailingly lively and entertaining."
".....Peppy choreography was pleasing.....the tap numbers were a joy."
"Olney’s new mainstage facility really complements the talent behind its productions, adding a significant amount of grandeur to an already-polished production.....The cast as a whole has a nice, symbiotic energy. The orphans are plucky and execute the innovative choreography with ease and enthusiasm. And the adult chorus brings a joyful energy to such numbers as “Who Will Buy?” a number which captures the spirit of a London town square with lovely, overlapping melodies."
".....Visually, Oliver! is stunning, with top-notch direction by Brad Watkins and choreography by Ilona Kessell."
".....Clearly there is plenty of talent on Olney’s new mainstage, but there is quite a bit behind the scenes as well.....Ilona Kessell has playfully choreographed Oliver!, keeping things light during numbers such as “Food, Glorious Food” and Fagin’s pocket-picking tutorial.....Director Brad Watkins has crafted a fine version of Oliver! Audiences can consider themselves lucky to have seen it."
~Washington Theatre Review
"Musical Aida potent at Toby’s. .....Aida, enthrallingly staged at Toby’s Dinner Theatre under the direction of Toby Orenstein.....As is the custom with a Toby’s musical, the ensemble work is strong, with stirring choral harmonies and intricate footwork."
".....Toby’s is among the first theatres in the nation to mount a post-Broadway production, and their effort is first-rate. The entire cast is very good and the leads are superb.....Neither director Toby Orenstein nor choreographer Ilona Kessell seem to be trying to duplicate the approach of the Broadway production, but neither lets the need to be unique get in the way of simple storytelling. Orenstein adapts it to the needs of the theatre in the round smoothly..... Kessell’s dances tell their portion of the story with energy and grace."
"Remarkable cast brings Aida to life at Toby’s. Intricate choreography and an award-winning score highlight Disney’s Aida, combining to make the production of this 2000 Tony winner a formidable task, but not one too great for the talents and labors of the crew at Toby’s.....Curry shines as Aida.....her body movements play nicely in a production that leans heavily on the dance developed by choreographer Ilona Kessell..... "
"Enchanting is the word for Beauty at Toby’s. ......At Toby’s, this wonderfully musical take on the fable plays out in a succession of storybook costumes and evocative in-the-round scenes glimpsed through the mists of stage smoke and special lighting.....Michael Sillar does some amazing acrobatic turns as a flying doormat, while others in the large 24-peson cast perform a ballet of pepper mills and sugar bowls and napkins, thanks once again to the ingenuity of choreographer Ilona Kessell."
"Beauty and the Beast is a spectacle to behold. .....Beauty and the Beast, as produced at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, offers a well-loved story, fine performances and effective music. Most of all it offers spectacle. The direction, choreography and costumes combine to dazzling effect."
"Fancy Cats is a local hit at Cozy Toby's. The cast portrays more than two dozen felines so fetchingly that you think maybe a few more couldn't hurt…..The intimacy of the space at Toby's proves to be a plus for directors Toby Orenstein and Ilona Kessell (who also came up with the show's
lithe, balletic choreography). It makes the show less of an empty
spectacle and aligns it more closely with its source material…..The
costumes and makeup captivate, but the actors expend nine lives' worth of
energy portraying the various cats. The entire troupe deserves credit for
its triple threat of singing, dancing and reverse-anthropomorphizing, but
there are standouts……Cats may have vacated Broadway, but much of its dandered appeal lives on in Toby's pedigreed production."
~The Washington Times
"The show that ran longer than any other musical on Broadway and in London's West End…..Toby's is the first in the Region to tackle it. Her team fills the hall with fantasy with a cast of talented singers and dancers strutting their feline stuff …..Perhaps in recognition of the fact that this is a major dance piece with every moment requiring not just staging but choreographing, Toby Orenstein shares direction credit with choreographer Ilona Kessell. This may be part of the secret of the success of the show in this new production."
"Toby's production brings a whole new life to
Cats . At Toby's, the audience enters a mystical feline world and is immediately drawn into a magical environment of twinkling stars and gleaming cats' eyes. From my ringside seat, I was drawn by cats' eyes up close, engaging me to create an instant kinship. Together, directors Toby Orenstein and Ilona Kessell create magic with
an amazing cast of actors who genuinely seem to enter the animal kingdom,
appearing from various directions. Toby's Cats is ensemble acting at its best, with cast members displaying extraordinary skill in executing Kessell's demanding combined jazz and ballet choreography."
~Severna Park Voice
Carousel spins smoothly, darkly at Olney.
Unlike a carousel, which revolves repeatedly in place, one of the messages
of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 musical, Carousel, is that what goes
around doesn't necessarily have to come around. Bad patterns can be
broken. This gratifying realization is one of several rewarding aspects of
Olney Theatre Center's lilting but thoughtful, solid
production…..Ilona Kessell 's choreography opens the show with an evocatively staged "Carousel Waltz," in which the actors mime riding unseen carousel horses."
Ragtime done big time. Somehow,
director Toby Orenstein manages to bring Ragtime to the smaller venue without sacrificing quality or compromising its innate bigness. She also does it without making the show seem cramped by the space. Miss Orenstein pares the scenery down to a handful of essentials and recreates turn-of-the-century America through characters, swelling voices, and expressive choreography by Ilona Kessell."
~The Washington Times
Ragtime: Nothing shabby about it at Toby's. Toby's wonderfully resourceful choreographer Ilona
Kessell is also at the top of her game here, creating eye-pleasing patterns of dance that are the visual equivalents of those fizzing candy "pop rocks" that explode in your mouth."
"Toby Orenstein gives Ragtime, the last great musical of the twentieth century, a great, heart touching, crowd pleasing production. The soaring score raises the low roof and Toby's staging makes it seem that this is a show meant to be presented in the round. It wasn't, but she and her choreographer, Ilona Kessell, take the swirling, circling movement of the opening scene as the dominant feel for the entire evening and make it work..."
Footloose steps to high-powered rhythms. No matter how you feel about the decade of big hair and
ingratiating synth-pop hooks, this production of Footloose
might make you an 80's
convert. The triple threat team - director Toby Orenstein, choreographer
Ilona Kessell and musical director Douglas Lawler - behind last season's triumphant Jekyll and Hyde, have once again delivered a show that is fun, polished and accessible to a wide range of ages. Unlike many dinner theatres…..Toby's is intimate, and the actors are so close they are practically dancing in your coffee cup. This nearness generates excitement and immediacy…..Miss Orenstein and crew resourcefully invent myriad ways for the actors to dance and perform in a circular fashion without drawing too much attention to the device. Miss Kessell's choreography, in particular, suits both the space and the show, with its emphasis on hormone-driven leaps and Texas two-step line dance kicks and scoots."
~The Washington Times
Footloose dinner theatre picks up the beat. Toby Orenstein's regional debut of the 1998 Broadway hit
Footloose: The Musical
scoops up its tableside audience in scores of twitchy,
youth-loving arms and drags it away to the dance floor…..In the battle to
win our hearts, Orenstein has a not-so-secret weapon with her in fellow
Hayes Award honoree Ilona Kessell . We long ago acknowledged Kessell as the most resourceful and creative show choreographer in Maryland. Here she gets all the raw material she needs to cover the center stage at Toby's with hip-popping, leg-snapping, spine-swooping glory."
"Hand it to Toby and Ilona and Doug - they've done it again! This team of
director, choreographer and musical director frequently manage to take a
Broadway-style musical designed to come over the footlights like
gangbusters and make it fit their intimate dinner theatre. This time it is
the high energy dance musical nicely adapted for the stage from the 1984
movie by veteran Broadway director Walter Bobbie (Chicago) and the movie's
screenwriter/lyricist Dean Pitchford…..Ilona Kessell
takes obvious delight in the opportunities to choreograph in the unique format of theatre in the round. These are high energy dances with a country-ish boot-scooting feel."
"Get happy. Dames at Sea is a confection of a musical - nothing more than a lighter-than air sweet without an
ounce of edification to be found…..But when it's pulled off with the kind
of effortless skill and flair on display now a Olney Theatre Center,
Dames at Sea
is definitely an indulgence you can afford and, in fact, the kind of
pleasure you all but owe yourself in today's gloom-and-doom
world…..Director Dallett Norris has done an outstanding job with setting
and maintaining the perfect whimsical tone throughout, and Ilona
Kessell' s clever, energetic choreography integrates seamlessly."
"The Olney Theatre Center for the Arts' production of Dames at
simplistic book, kitschy dialogue and every minute of the show is a pure
's choreography captures the spirit of the piece perfectly and director Dallett Norris brings it all together in a package so lively that audience members will be tapping their feet and bouncing in their chairs. "
"The more you know about the movie musicals of the late 1920's and the 1930's the more fun this campy romp is…..But it isn't necessary to bring anything with you but a suspension of disbelief to enjoy Olney's production. It is bright, colorful, tuneful, well acted and well danced..."
Toby's serves up a real "Heart" warmer. The first of two show-stopping numbers comes early with "You've Gotta Have Heart." ...Toby's gifted choreographer, Ilona Kessell, compensates for the tight quarters of an imagined locker room by having the ballplayers leaping hurdles, kicking off from benches, snapping towels and otherwise strutting the right stuff. The escalating high jinks and harmonies provide the first stage-side contact high we've had at a theatre all year…..Another musical highlight comes after intermission with "Two Lost Souls," a jazzy bit of syncopation set in a late-night hot spot. That's where stressed-out Joe Hardy runs away with devil's apprentice Lola. Their playful, hell-with-it duet turns into a no-holds-barred, slinky, sultry ensemble production that makes sinning look pretty winning."
"Revival remains a charmer. Ilona Kessell's choreography sparkles in the frenzied restaurant number, "A Romantic Atmosphere," in which the headwaiter winds up trapped in the middle of a circle of dancing patrons."
"Local stars help Follies sparkle. It's hard
to tell where Orenstein's staging ends and Ilona
Kessell 's choreography begins, but the whole show moves like a dream. Kessell shows her experience in the complex "Mirror, Mirror" number, with all of its reverse-image steps and intertwining sets of dancers. The "Bolero D'Amour" Spanish ballroom specialty performed by Allison Regnault and Brad Carnes-Stine is another of the show's outstanding moments."
West Side Story flavors dinner. Directed by Toby's producing director Toby Orenstein,
this chow-biz production of West Side Story
is among the finest you're ever likely to see…..Toby's
choreographer, Ilona Kessell
, has retained Robbins's original dance steps and ingeniously adapted them for this theatre-in-the-round configuration. A cast of some two dozen accomplished actors and singers carries out the wildly complex choreography with precision, making the dancing one of the show's most stunning features."
"Toby's Guys has the right moves. Leading the
list of delights is the choreography of Ilona Kessell . Kessell excels in a style of dance that grows firmly out of the tradition of musical theatre. She knows how to fill a stage with arresting and varied movement that builds through patterns and complexity to a satisfying resolve. Kessell manages to make even singers look like real dancers, and the all-male production number in Act II for "Luck Be a Lady" could be the most precise and exciting male dance number seen on an area stage this year."