‘Ragtime’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse by Amanda Gunther


You’ll get a sensational feeling for that music of the early 1900’s and life in New York City as Ragtime rolls into the Laurel Mill Playhouse to kick off the summer season. Directed by Michael V. Hartsfield, with musical direction provided by Stephen Deininger, this powerful musical is heartfelt and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren’s brilliant score is well delivered by the ensemble. Three intertwining family stories that confront history’s timeless contradictions of wealth and poverty, hope and despair, and freedom and prejudice all boiling down to what it is like to live in America, the great melting pot. That story is supported by an incredibly talented cast of leads and supporting singers that carry the messages of the songs wholeheartedly to the audience.

Sarah (Samantha McEwen) and Coalhouse (Anwar Thomas). Photo by Brian Binney.

There is a stark defining visual contrast right from the beginning of the three groups of people appearing in the show. Costume Design Team Maureen Rogers, Kim Delk, Vicki Goutzoulis, Maureen Johnson, Laila Riazi, and Jack Stewart create an incredible picture at the beginning of the show as the three family groups make their way onto the stage in the opening number. The rich white family is outfitted in shades of haughty cream and beige, soft browns and rich grays while the folks of Harlem are given vibrant shades of red, green, and blue in their skirts and suits. The immigrants are donned in muddy colors, distressed fabric and dark shade of despair. When these three groups march in a carousel fashion around the stage it becomes a whirlwind of color that depicts social standing and creates a stunning image to behold.

The one issue that is difficult to grapple with throughout the production is the consistency of the musical track being played from the sound booth. At times it is often too loud and blaring with a tinny sound quality to it, really drowning out some of the performers. This happens several times to some of the softer voiced characters, like Evelyn Nesbit during her songs, and even to the stronger voiced characters like Father and Mother when they are speaking. If the musical track were to be toned down and pulled back – this production would be flawless.

There are powerful voices dotted throughout this production and when they sing as one in the ensemble they are an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. There are several numbers where the energy of the ensemble is just bursting off the stage, and with almost thirty characters on the stage for some scenes this is no small feat. “What Game!” is a perfect example of these high spirited ensemble members as they bounce up and down in the baseball stands – giddy with glee over enjoying America’s favorite past time. Be sure to keep your eye on Kat McKerrow as she is sure to keep you entertained during this song.

Hearing these empowered passionate songs with voices so strong they blow the audience away is a rare treat in community theatre and the audience will not be disappointed here. There are so many songs and so many characters portrayed so well that it is hard to discuss them all without giving too much of the story away. But there are moments that shine brightly above the rest that stand out and are worth a mention.

The incredible trio that is sung between Father (Brian Binney), Tateh (Stephen Deininger) and Mother (Katie Sheldon) during “Journey On” is deeply emotional – as each expresses their feelings of adventure and trepidation over travel going to and leaving America, and watching her husband leave on another long expedition. Binney is saddled with the heavy burden of playing the formal rich man with racist tendencies and he executes this role flawlessly. He evolves as a character, even softening some toward the end and watching this transformation is extremely rewarding. Deininger, doubling as the musical director, has a powerful belting voice that gets showcased in several solos during numbers like “Success,” “Buffalo Nickle Photoplay Inc.” and then in a duet with  Sheldon – “Our Children.”

Little Girl (Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski) and Tateh (Stephen Deininger). Photo by Brian Binney.

The chemistry that bubbles below the surface between Deininger and Sheldon is sweet and innocent, seeping through the subtext of “Our Children” as they sing fondly and nostalgically about her son and his daughter, the deeper meaning of the burgeoning feelings rising easily to the surface through their eyes. He is equally expressive throughout the show as she is and the pair together make for quite the strong pillars of support to the production. Sheldon has a songbird’s voice that floats melodious sorrows to our ears during “Back to Before,” and she seldom wavers in her convictions regarding the situation of Coalhouse and Sarah. The pair make a delightful duo individually on stage as well as together in scenes they share.

The two most powerful voices of this show belong to Sarah (Samantha McEwen) and Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Anwar Thomas.) Together when they sing “Wheels of a Dream” their voices express so much hope and determination – a pure sound that radiates expressively across the audience. McEwen has a silent grace about her character so when her voice is finally heard in “Your Daddy’s Son” her belt just blows people away with the deep emotional turmoil that flows over her lips as she sings. Thomas is a fun character, playing the piano as if he had actually been given ivories rather than a fold-out wooden wall flap, his eager nature apparent in every move he makes. But as darkness befalls him and injustice surges he too transforms; his songs taking on a dark and malevolent tone, a horrid anguish screaming from his soul in “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” and “Coalhouse Demands.”

The highlight of the show is “Gliding” the turning point of everyone’s life happening just before, during, and after that moment. Sung by Deininger, the word literally glide from his lips as his eyes show us joy beyond compare, filled with hopes and dreams of the future and what will be as he spins his daughter (Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski) round and around the stage. This touching moment is awe-inspiring and a pinnacle point in Ragtime.

The cast of 'Ragtime.' Photo by Brian Binney.

Get over to The Laurel Mill Playhouse to hear the exceptional work of a talented ensemble before the run of Ragtime has ended.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Ragtime plays through June 17, 2012 at Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. For tickets, call the box office to make a reservation at (301) 617-9906.

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