Don't call his music a bowl of cherries

May 05, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's exactly one week ago, and musical director Ross Scott Rawlings has just checked into his hotel in Knoxville, Tenn. This is city number 87 in the final stretch of the nine-month, 95-city tour of Fosse.

The Tony Award-winning musical revue arrives at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, in Rawlings' hometown, tomorrow. But before Rawlings gets to Baltimore, there are tour stops in three towns in three different states.

That's nothing for this confirmed multi-tasker. Back in his dinner theater days, Rawlings could juggle musicals at three separate dinner theaters -- sometimes with one arm in a cast -- and still find time to do his college homework.

"I always have been an over-achiever," says the 36-year-old conductor, who works on his own arrangements during down time on tour. "It was just like, fill every second of the day that you can. I don't like to be idle."

This is how he juggled the dinner theaters. "You're doing a show in Randallstown, but it gets out by 11, so you can go to the Towsontown Dinner Theater and do their post show, and Saturday night you have to be at Act Two Dinner Theater because they have their post shows then," he explains, adding that he got around to his homework at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

"I don't know how he didn't sleep all day in school," says his mother, Daryl L. Rawlings, of Frederick. "I guess you can do anything when you put your mind to it, and his mind lives, breathes, thinks, whatever, music."

The arm-in-a-cast gambit was due to chronic problems from a car accident Rawlings was in at age 16. At the time, he was on his way to his first orchestra rehearsal for his first community theater show, a production of Seesaw at Liberty Showcase Theatre. "I broke, you name it -- ribs, wrists, kneecaps, sternum, fractured elbows," he says of the injuries that landed him in the hospital for more than a month.

He managed to conduct and play piano in the show anyway, albeit with a smaller orchestra, a reduced piano part and a cast on his arm. "I was like this little diehard: `I'm not going to let this ruin my career!' What career do you have at 16?" he says now.

His diligence probably didn't help the healing process. Five years later, when he became resident musical director at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, he was back in physical therapy. "I was doing dinner theater full time, school full time, plus physical therapy full time," he says.

In 1992, he underwent surgery on both arms to correct damage to his elbows. "I was working through this. It was very creative. This is one of the reasons school took so long," says Rawlings, who got a delayed B.A. from Towson University in 1993.

Meanwhile, Toby's was producing an original version of Phantom of the Opera, for which Rawlings was providing orchestrations, as well as musical direction. His doctors wanted to operate on each arm a year apart, but Rawlings persuaded them to separate the operations by just two months, and he kept conducting.

"I have funny pictures of me conducting with, like, my foot at times," he recalls.

"Ross is certainly one who finds the hurdles to jump, not the obstacles to stop him," is the way the dinner theater's owner, Toby Orenstein, describes Rawlings, who will return to work on Orenstein's teen conservatory production of Children of Eden this summer.

Rawlings' musical talent surfaced extremely early, according to his mother, who remembers the way he would listen quietly, even as an infant, to whatever records she happened to play. Then on a visit to his maternal grandmother, when Rawlings was about 3, the toddler sat down at the piano and started picking out some of the tunes he'd heard at home.

Piano lessons officially started at age 7. By the time he was in Magnolia Middle School -- after his family moved from Baltimore County to Harford County -- he started a singing group called Renaissance that stayed together through high school, performing at parties and other events.

In high school, Rawlings also became heavily involved in community and dinner theaters, which eventually led to nine national tours. Along the way -- and while he was working at Toby's -- he spent four years teaching at Columbia's Atholton High School in the mid-1990s.

Rawlings bought a house in Columbia in 1995. "I've probably only lived in it maybe three, four years," he says. "I call it my vacation home now."

Although the current tour of Fosse ends next month, a European tour is expected to begin in the fall. "I think it's going to take me with it," says the conductor, who's never toured internationally.

"I thought I was going to be a little tired of the show, but it's actually a really fun show to do. If you look at [Bob] Fosse's legacy, he's so snappy; he did all the hipper, flashier kind of stuff, so musically it's kind of intriguing," admits Rawlings, whose credits include two shows, Cabaret and Chicago, whose music is showcased in the revue.

"I haven't signed on the dotted line yet," he says, "but I can't pass this up."

Fosse

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Admission: $36.50-$56.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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