Toby's puts on rousing rendition of `Ragtime'


Dinner theater gets it right from opening number

October 09, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Without art, what is our existence but chaos?" asks one of the main characters in the musical Ragtime. Adapted by playwright Terrence McNally from E.L. Doctorow's landmark novel, Ragtime was, in this critic's opinion, not merely an artistic triumph, but the best new Broadway musical of the 1990s. It's also, however, a devilishly complex show to stage.

Interweaving a handful of historic characters with fictitious characters representing three disparate ethnic groups in early 20th-century America, the show has such a broad, epic scope that, in the wrong hands, it could conceivably dissolve into chaos. But at Toby's Dinner Theatre of Columbia, director Toby Orenstein and choreographer Ilona Kessell have captured the artistry of this magnificent musical and mounted a rousing production.

You can tell they're on the right track in the opening number in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' rich score. As choreographed for Toby's in-the-round stage, the show's three groups - White Anglo Saxon Protestants, immigrants and blacks - each briefly and proudly hold forth at center stage, only to be shoved aside by the subsequent group, before all three engage in a circular dance of avoidance. This choreography may be similar to its Broadway predecessor, but it's especially fluid in the round.

The title number also showcases the accomplished choral work - co-musical direction is by Douglas Lawler and Christopher Youstra - that resounds in the large ensemble pieces, from the opening "Ragtime" to the closing reprise of the optimistic anthem, "Wheels of a Dream."

The large cast features many notable vocalists, among them Nancy Parrish Asendorf as the WASP mother, who delivers a heartfelt rendition of the feminist-tinged song of self-realization, "Back to Before," and Channez McQuay as rabble-rouser Emma Goldman.

The standout, however, is Tom McKenzie, in the catalytic role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime pianist who turns into a violent revolutionary after the mother of his infant son is killed. This powerful vocalist sings with a fervor that resonates so deeply, it lends added majesty to Coalhouse's dire plight.

McKenzie infuses a strong sense of hope in his duets with Eleasha Gamble, who, in turn, imbues Coalhouse's doomed love interest with gentle dignity. It's indicative of the sensitivity of Kessell's choreography that these lovers never touch in their most touching moment - Coalhouse's reverie of his lost love, "Sarah Brown Eyes."

There are other beautifully subtle moments as well, although the pace slackens at the start of the second act, which is set partly in Atlantic City where the central WASP family becomes increasingly involved with a Jewish immigrant (Rob McQuay) and his daughter.

By the time the action shifts back to New York, however, the production regains momentum, moving with new-found energy toward an ending that eerily intermingles tragedy and hope - two strains that have shaped, and continue to shape, the larger American family that, metaphorically speaking, is at the core of this stirring musical.

Ragtime continues through Nov. 23 at Toby's, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia. Doors open at 6 p.m., with curtain time at 8:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Sundays; doors open at 10:30 a.m., with a 12:30 p.m. curtain time for matinees Wednesdays and Sundays. Tickets are $38-$43. Call 410-995-1969 or 1-800-888-6297.

Center Stage news

Two playwrights with Center Stage pedigrees have been in the news. Bridget Carpenter has won the Kesselring Prize, awarded by the National Arts Club to a promising playwright. Carpenter won the $10,000 prize for her play, The Faculty Room, which debuted at the 2003 Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Center Stage produced her play Fall in 2000.

In addition, Lynn Nottage received the Kesselring's Honorable Mention for her play Intimate Apparel, which made its world premiere at Center Stage last season in a co-production with California's South Coast Repertory. The play will be produced off-Broadway by the Roundabout Theatre Company later this season.

In other Center Stage news, as a reflection of the social issues espoused by George Bernard Shaw, author of the theater's current production of Misalliance, five performances have been designated in support of charities whose missions were favorites of the playwright. Five dollars of the price of each ticket will go to local charities.

Here's the lineup: 8 p.m. Oct. 16, Advocates for Children and Youth; 8 p.m. Oct. 23, Animal Rescue Inc.; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26, Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity; 8 p.m. Oct. 28, Baltimore Reads; 8 p.m. Oct. 29, American Friends Service Committee/Baltimore Urban Peace Movement.

Furthermore, in Misalliance, the character who represents Shaw's alter ego endows free libraries. In keeping with that, Center Stage is collecting books that will be donated to The Book Thing of Baltimore, a free book center in Charles Village. Donors can deposit books in the theater's lobby before performances or leave them at the theater's box office. Misalliance continues through Nov. 2 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. For more information, call 410-332-0033.

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