- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2003

“Ragtime” is the last great musical of the 20th century.

Epic in scope, thrillingly emotive, “Ragtime” depicts a turning point when America was moving from an agricultural economy into an industrial powerhouse, when surges of immigrants were changing the fabric of our nation and black Americans were assuming new social roles despite ingrained racism.

America was moving to a jazzier, syncopated rhythm, and “Ragtime,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same title, captures that wild, wistful time when people were caught between the racing present and the familiar past.

The Broadway version of “Ragtime” — with a large cast, stunning and intricate set pieces, elaborate costumes and a full orchestra — was huge.



How could Toby’s, a 300-seat dinner theater that can barely fit a buffet table and salad bar during the dinner service, pull off something on the scale of “Ragtime”? 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 (the vintage Harry Houdini posters and the old-timey images of Americana lining the theater walls are an evocative touch) and re-creates turn-of-the-century America through characters, swelling voices, and expressive choreography by Ilona Kessel.

“Ragtime’s”score blends traditional Broadway anthems and ballads with the jangly rags of the period and tinges of gospel and patriotic music. The ragtime music is surprisingly flexible and varied, supplying a framework and context for the characters. You can detect klezmer overtones in the songs about the Jewish immigrants, a meatier and jazzier beat for the Harlem scenes, a stately waltz time for the wealthy white families, and a brassy, Dixieland feel for the sequences taking place in vaudeville.

The musical interweaves three family stories: a well-to-do white family living in New Rochelle in 1906; a Jewish immigrant named Tateh (Rob McQuay) and his daughter (Alexis Berosch or Katelyn Glass); and a black family made up of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Tom McKenzie), Sarah (Eleasha Gamble) and their newborn son. Real people, such as Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington also figure into the scenario.

These worlds collide as the genteel, isolated existence of Father (David Bosley-Reynolds) and Mother (Nancy Parrish Asendorf) and their house on the hill in New Rochelle begins to fall apart and re-shape itself to a new, blended dynamic. Mother feels the changes most acutely. A pampered, sheltered wife, Mother’s life is irrevocably changed when she finds Sarah’s abandoned baby in the garden. Rather than turning the mother and child over to the authorities, Mother takes both into her care, setting into motion the grand and tragic events that follow.

Emotions run high in “Ragtime,” and nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of Coalhouse Walker and Sarah. They are the hopes and snags of the American Dream personified. Thirty-five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, they stand on the cusp of change, feeling hope and power for the first time in their lives. All they have to do is wait for the rest of the country to catch up.

Coalhouse and Sarah’s plight is fueled by pain and dreams, expressed in a flight of songs — “Your Daddy’s Son,” “The Courtship,” “New Music,” and the majestic “Wheels of A Dream.” Mr. McKenzie’s Coalhouse is a vocal and acting powerhouse in his portrait of a man spurred on by rage at the system and by an almost holy tenderness for Sarah and his son.

He is matched in resonance by Miss Gamble as Sarah, a woman ruled by principle who finds herself undone in her passion for Coalhouse. His music woos her, but it is his heart and soul that awakens the warrior in her.

Other characters in the excellent ensemble also contribute shimmering moments. Miss Asendorf as Mother touches and inspires in her portrayal of a woman who goes from doing what is proper to doing what is right. Mr. McQuay’s Tateh is a pure soul driven by his determination to make a better life for his daughter — his dedication is so palpable that when he finds a clever way out of poverty you feel you have risen in the world, too.

Russell Sunday is a ghostly, potent presence as Houdini, while Laurie Saylor offers some much-needed levity as scandalous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Her infamous “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” number is intriguingly choreographed, with the chorus portraying a jury (all wearing old man-masks) salivating over Evelyn as she swings above them, saucily pleading her case.

There are a few quibbles with “Ragtime” — the body mikes blew out from time to time, obliterating the vocals. A more serious problem is the overlong first act — it clocks in at nearly an hour and a half. The second act is much faster and less clunky.

Murder, racism, arson, revolutionaries and anti-Semitism make for some pretty weighty fare by dinner theater standards. But if you’re seeking something more than pure escapism, then “Ragtime” offers substance and breadth — in addition to entertainment — with your buffet dinner.

***1/2

WHAT: “Ragtime,” music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, book by Terence McNally

WHERE: Toby’s Dinner Theatre 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia, Md.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays (doors open 6 p.m. for dinner), 7 p.m. Sundays (doors open 5 p.m. for dinner), matinees Wednesdays and Sundays (doors open 10:30 a.m. for brunch). Through Nov. 23.

TICKETS: $24.50 to $43

PHONE: 301/596-6161

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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