The emotionally stirring historical patchwork known as Ragtime: The Musical is back at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in a wonderful new professional mounting. It was twelve years ago that Toby Orenstein first introduced her buffet-line audiences to this 1998 Broadway powerhouse. But blessed with another first-rate cast and production, the work’s themes and lessons resonate just as meaningfully today.
Like the 1975 E. L. Doctorow novel before it, Ragtime: The Musical engages us in the type of dialogue on race relations that Americans were recently accused of being too cowardly to have. With an operatic sweep and great artistic skill, the musical shows how even bitter medicine can be made into a delectable treat with a proper dollop of faith in the future.
Playwright Terrence McNally was far more successful at taming the Doctorow material than Milos Forman was in his 1981 film. Set in New York during the transitional era of early-20th century American culture, the musical strikes a perfect balance in its interlacing sagas of three diverse groups of characters.
In an opening ensemble fugue, “Ragtime,” we are invited to meet a clan of New Rochelle upper-crusts, an influx of Ellis Island immigrants, and an aspiring black middle-class made up of the children and grandchildren of America’s slaves. Through representative stories from each group, we become immersed in the struggles, human failings and dreams of a handful of central characters.
Their fates are not always reassuring. Violence, cruelty and cold institutional indifference are seen to reside in the gorge left by the receding glacier of social intolerance.
The Tony Award-winning score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) is practically non-stop, and Act One has so many real and fictional characters stepping forward to introduce themselves that it can verge on overload. But Co-Directors Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey use stage focus and humor to keep anyone from getting lost.
The most riveting of the dramas follows educated African-American ragtime pianist “Coalhouse” Walker Jr. as he struggles to mend a shattered relationship with Sarah, the mother of his child.
Kevin McAllister makes a charismatic Coalhouse, restrained in his respectability until a run-in with an Irish firehouse bigot forces an explosion. McAllister’s dynamic singing voice and persuasive emoting make a hugely sympathetic impression throughout. His performance is sure to be recalled as a highlight of the new drama season.
As Sarah, Ada Satterfield’s classically trained soprano voice makes her an impressive partner indeed for McAllister. Together the pair revs up the love duet “Wheels of a Dream” and turns it into the evening’s first genuine showstopper.
An equally well-rounded performance is given by Elizabeth Rayca as Mother, the committed homemaker of the New Rochelle contingent. Rayca’s pure, laser-like vocal pitch and breath control turn her defiant “Back to Before” solo into another of the evening’s sustained attention-grabbers.
As the family’s globetrotting patriarch, David Bosley-Reynolds is one of only two returning members from the original Toby’s cast. Once again he brings bearing and honor to Father, pulling off the tricky feat of being both maddening and endearing in the role. He contributes many strong vocal moments, as well, perhaps none more poignant than in the “Journey On” sequence.
The evening’s other clear audience favorite is Josh Simon as the widowed Tateh, the Jewish immigrant whose worries over providing for his young daughter lead him to a productive new career in the New World. With his European inflections and measured optimism, Simon is a delight whether acting, dancing or singing, especially in the evocative solo “Gliding.”
Also making strong impressions along the way in cameos of historical figures are David James as Henry Ford, Coby Kay Callahan as socialist Emma Goldman, Zac Brightbill as Brother, Ben Lurye as escape artist Harry Houdini, and Julia Lancione as scandalous party girl Evelyn Nesbit.
The kids in Toby’s shows are always a treat. Ella Booden and Camden Lippert alternate here as Tateh’s daughter, while Jace Franco and Gavin Willard share the spotlight as Edgar. An uncredited tyke runs in at the end just in time to steal everyone’s heart. And I can’t leave out the other returning cast member — Andrew Horn as the flinty and irascible Grandfather.
Among the returning crew is Toby’s wonderfully resourceful choreographer Ilona Kessell. Anyone who says that Ragtime isn’t much of a dancers’ show has to see what Kessell does with visual patterns as complex yet simple as the musical idiom itself. She especially excels at suggesting ethnic heritage, whether it be Eastern European warmth and exuberance or Harlem-grown enthusiastic abandon. The “Gettin’ Ready Rag” dance sequence provides the show another Toby’s trademark “wow.”
Unfortunately on opening night the amplification of the ensemble’s combined voices overpowered the speakers and muddied the harmonies. I am confident that this will be rectified quickly. More often, the Sound Design by Mark Smedley was right on target.
Music Director Ross Scott Rawlings lends the whole production his considerable expertise with the arrangements. On press night his live musical ensemble brought out all the proper shadings in the instrumentation and provided solid support for the singers.
Once again Costume Designer Lawrence B. Munsey’s ankle-length dresses, beaded gowns, white suits and colorful ethnic fashions proved a feast for the eye. The Set Design by David A. Hopkins fluidly evoked a variety of locations, from immigrant terminals and ship decks to a smoky political hall and a cozy attic hideaway.
Ragtime: The Musical ends its run November 15th, and then other local stages will get a chance at some of this show’s prodigious talents. Meanwhile, if you prefer dramatic fireworks in your musical entertainment and somehow missed this show back in 2003, you most certainly will not want that history to repeat itself now.
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, including one 20-minute intermission.
Ragtime: The Musical plays through November 15, 2015 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. Reservations are required at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS , or purchase them online at Ticketmaster.