Youngsters getting into the act

Musical: Four pre-teen actors share two parts - and one thrilling experience - in a production of `Ragtime' at Toby's Dinner Theatre.

Howard Live

Howard County

October 16, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When the lights come up on the current production of Ragtime at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, the boy playing the part of Edgar stands on a platform high above the set, illuminated by a spotlight, and delivers the first lines of the show.

That role and the part of the little immigrant girl offer two substantial opportunities for four local pre-teen actors to match their stage and singing skills with seasoned professionals.

The children, who are paid for their work, divide the performances, each doing four shows a week. They often get home around midnight and get up for school the next morning before 7.

"It is a big commitment," said director and theater owner Toby Orenstein. But, she added, "the self-confidence they gain from the theater lasts a lifetime."

She will get no argument from the youngsters in her cast.

The musical deals with the struggles and idealism of ethnic groups at the start of the 20th century. Matthew Summers of North Laurel and Ryan Patrick of Reisterstown share the role of Edgar, the son of a wealthy family in New Rochelle, N.Y. Alexis Berusch of Clarksville and Katelyn Glass of Ellicott City play the little girl who comes from Eastern Europe to Ellis Island with her father to find a better life.

All four are thrilled to be part of the production.

"It is a lot of work and a lot of fun," said Alexis, 9, who loves musicals and recently filmed a television movie for the Nickelodeon Network titled Nisa's Nature Adventure. "I get to meet new people. It is really cool."

"I really like doing this," said Katelyn, 9. She has been in productions at Toby's since she was 4 - including Annie Get Your Gun and The King and I - following in her sister Samantha's footsteps. She said the most difficult part of preparing for Ragtime was learning an accent.

The boys have considerable acting experience, as well. Ryan, 11, started acting a year ago and has appeared in productions with Baltimore Children's Theater and the Liberty Showcase Theater in Reisterstown.

Matthew, 12, got his first taste of the spotlight in a Cub Scout skit. "People thought I was pretty good," he said. He went on to play Fagen in the Laurel Community Theater's production of Oliver and to earn several roles at the Young Artists Theater in Laurel.

Orenstein said she likes to hire children who participate in her classes and summer camps. "I seldom audition anymore," she said, although she did ask the four young actors in Ragtime to sing and read a few lines to be sure they could handle the parts.

The children in her programs "have been trained the way we want them to be," she said. From there, it is a matter of finding the right physical type for a role, she said, as well as judging their honesty in acting and ability to take direction.

"I really believe in theater, not only as an educational tool but as a character-building tool," Orenstein said, noting that her young actors learn to read carefully and bring the words to life, as well as gain experience working with a group and listening.

The actors' parents - who serve as supporters, regular audience members and chauffeurs - agree.

"Working with the adults is really adding to her maturity," said John Berusch of his daughter. "She's very responsible. She really recognizes the value of having to show up at your job."

Gregg Patrick, along with the other parents, appreciates the way Ryan has buckled down on his homework after school in order to be done by show time. "He's very focused," said Patrick. "He has really good work habits."

Marguerite Summers noted that for Matthew, the show has boosted his self-esteem. "When he hears that applause, the world is his," she said. He even earned the enthusiastic approval of his brothers, Daniel, 13, and Ben, 9.

All of the proud parents said it was not a difficult decision to support their children's theater dreams.

"It's something she really enjoys doing," said Katelyn's mom, Denise Glass. "As a parent, that's what you have to do. You have to support your kid in anything they want to do.

"It's like if they were doing sports," she said of driving her daughter to shows and attending numerous performances. "It's just a little bit later in the evening."

The parents and the children give Orenstein and the other cast members a lot of credit for making the show a good experience.

"I worked for Toby a long time ago," said Glass. "I know [Katelyn] is around great people. She's got more parents over there than she has at home."

The cast and crew score high marks from the kids, too. "Everyone here is so funny," Ryan said. "I'm always laughing backstage."

He added, "They look out for me and include me like one of the guys."

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