`Songs' hits all the right notes

THEATER

July 14, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Every now and then a little theater produces a show that comes closer to the level of larger, professional companies. Last weekend that happened twice.

At the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, David Gregory, making his directorial debut, has mounted a creatively staged, beautifully sung production of Songs for a New World.

The 1995 musical revue was the first show by Jason Robert Brown, a songwriter who went on to win a Tony Award for Parade and whose two-person musical, The Last Five Years, will make its Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre in September.

Songs for a New World is hip, urban and urbane, and Gregory and set designer Kurt Thesing heighten the show's citified quality by setting it in a New York subway station. The setting is appropriate not only because it's a place where people from all walks of life cross paths, but also because one of the threads connecting the songs is the difficulty of moving on and making the right choices.

In the wistful "Stars and the Moon," Karina Ferry laments the love and happiness she sacrificed for riches and status. In the gospel-flavored "The River Won't Flow," smooth-crooning Evan Shyer and big-voiced Angelo Arrington sing about being unable to get ahead.

The subway concept has nothing whatsoever to do with the comical Kurt Weill send-up, "Surabaya-Santa." But that can be forgiven since Ferry's torchy delivery as Mrs. Claus -- tired of being left behind, "pining by the tree" -- is such a hoot.

Besides the setting, director Gregory has made one other major change. He's expanded the cast from four to six. The talented lineup also includes Darren McDonnell, Tiffany Mowry and Madonna Marie Refugia. All six cast members shine, as does the slick four-piece band led by Michelle Dunkle (in her debut as a musical director).

For that matter, almost everything about this show shines -- from the black-and-white cityscape photos on the walls to the way Timoth David Copney's fluid choreography complements the dulcetly blended voices of the singers.

"Hear my song/It'll help you believe in tomorrow," the company sings in the final number. This production will make you a believer.

Showtimes at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays, through July 30. Tickets are $15. Call 410-752-1225.

`Ragtime,' still timely

With a cast of 30-plus, the other notable production that opened last weekend probably shouldn't be described as the work of a "little" theater. Indeed, nothing about the majestic musical, Ragtime, can be called little -- not the plot, which combines historical figures with fictional accounts of early 20th- century immigrants, African-Americans and white Anglo-Saxon Protestants; not the rich score; and especially not seventh-grader Tanner Blaize, who brings aplomb and pluck to his duties as the young narrator of the production at Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival.

Boasting a magnificent score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and a skillfully structured script by Terrence McNally (based on E.L. Doctorow's novel), Ragtime was the best Broadway musical of the 1990s. Considering how well its themes of patriotism, revolution and cross-cultural understanding make the transition into the early 21st century, there's every reason to believe its star will continue to rise.

The show's greatness is ably reinforced by director/choreog- rapher Todd Pearthree's polished production. For starters, he has assembled an accomplished cast, led by Ken Ewing as the immigrant artist, Tateh; Towson student Curtis Bannister as the proud piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr.; and Nancy Parrish Asendorf as the enlightened WASP Mother (the same role she aced at Toby's Dinner Theatre in 2003).

What makes the production succeed, however, isn't any single performance. Like the show's central theme -- that we are all connected to and dependent on each other -- the production's components are inextricably linked. For example, the rousing choral work under Philip Collister's musical direction forms a perfect fit with the stylized, synchronized movements that Pearthree has devised for the ensemble. The director has also paid close attention to the smallest details -- the evocative uses, for instance, that he finds for hats (Coalhouse perches his derby on the cradle of his newly discovered baby son; later, he mournfully clutches the straw hat of his dead sweetheart).

In many respects, Ragtime is a disturbing musical. It poignantly depicts the dangers of failures in diplomacy and of failures to respect other cultures. Come to think of it, as this production stunningly demonstrates, the lessons of Ragtime may be timelier than ever.

Showtimes at Towson University's Stephens Hall Theatre, 8000 York Road, are 7:30 p.m. today and July 21, 8 p.m. tomorrow, July 22 and 23, and 2 p.m. Sunday; through July 23. Tickets are $23. Call 410-704-2787.

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