Fall plays focus on three American eras

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Robert Friedman

The Red Branch Theater’s production of Dogfight focuses on a Vietnam veteran’s recollection of the fateful night before he (Christian Hoff) shipped out, and his experiences with the woman (Courtney Branch) he brought to a party. The musical is on stage from Sept. 25 to Oct. 4.
Photo by Bruce F Press Photography

Plays that are now onstage, or will be soon, at Columbia theaters address three significant themes.

Ragtime, the multiple award-winning musical now being staged at Toby’s Dinner Theater, focuses on the early years of the 20th century. But its themes — race relations, immigration, and the upper 1 percent — will sound awfully familiar to local audiences during the play’s run through mid-November.

Benji Pasek and Justin Paul have won accolades for Dear Evan Hansen, a musical that recently premiered in Washington, DC. Their new musical, Dogfight — which concerns young Marines trying to distance themselves from their feelings as they go to fight in Vietnam — opens Sept. 25 at the Red Branch Theater.

And Technicolor Life, which addresses repercussions for veterans of the Iraq War. gets its world premiere from Rep Stage on Oct. 21 at Howard Community College’s Smith Theater.

An American tale

Ragtime, set in turn-of-the-century New York, weaves together the tales of an upper class family, a Jewish immigrant family, and a young Harlem musician named Coalhouse Walker.

Cameos of such early celebs as Harry Houdini, Sigmund Freud, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan also take to the stage, as they had in the E.L. Doctorow novel on which the musical is based.

The music for the show, featuring songs to the rhythms of rag, klezmer, marches, waltzes and good old Broadway belting, was composed by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens with a book by Terrance McNally.  

Ragtime won several Tonys after it made its Broadway debut in 1998 (it lost out for best musical to The Lion King). Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, subsequent multiple award winners, were featured in the original production, along with lots of special effects and props, including a real live Model-T Ford. The show was again acclaimed in a scaled-down 2009 revival at the Kennedy Center.  

Ragtime is one of the best musicals of the last 20 years,” said Toby Orenstein, who is co-directing the production with Larry Munsey at her Symphony Woods Road dinner theater. Scaling down big musicals has always been a challenge for the limited performing space at Toby’s, which means it’s “all about the story, and not the added schmaltz,” said the veteran theater producer-director.

New York Times theater critic Ben Brantly liked the scaled-down version better, noting that the play actually benefits from the less-is-more approach, with the story-telling and characters taking over in importance from the onstage surroundings.

Among other things, the story looks at early 20th century America’s conflicts of poverty and wealth, prejudice and freedom, hope and despair — all of which seem to continue to reverberate in America 100 years later.

Toby’s did a production of the show in 2003, and it was nominated for 12 Helen Hayes awards, winning three.

Tickets for the current production, which runs through Nov. 15, are $41.50 to $60, and include an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner or brunch. Doors for the evening performances/dinner open at 6 p.m. (5 p.m. on Sundays), and at 10:30 a.m. for matinee performances/brunch.

The theater is located at 5900 Symphony Woods Dr. For more information, call (410) 730-8311, or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Shipping out

Dogfight, presented by Red Branch Theater, is a memory-within-a-memory play. It begins with a Marine returning in 1967 from Vietnam, remembering four years earlier when he and two other young Marines celebrated their last evening in San Francisco before being shipped off to the battlefront of Vietnam.

That evening they held what they called a “dogfight,” in which, according to tradition, the young machos competed to bring the ugliest female date to a party.

This toxic premise, replete with the four-lettered way wartime buddies speak, is actually turned into a gentle musical with forgiveness and compassion at its core, according to Stephanie Lynn Williams, the play’s director and executive producer.

The main character, reliving the memories of that night in 1963, realizes how sweet, and how truly beautiful, was the unattractive girl he brought to the party, how she became a lifeline for him in Vietnam, and how reality is distorted by young men going to war. He asks forgiveness from her.

Although the musical is set during the Vietnam era, there are many parallels to our current political climate with regards to veterans’ issues, Williams said. With that in mind, a different area veteran will be acknowledged at each of the show’s nine performances, she said.

For more information about tickets, and to learn how to nominate a vet to be honored, call (410) 997-9352 or visit www.redbranchtheatrecompany.com.

The musical’s nine performances will be held Sept. 25, 26, Oct. 2, 3, 9, 10 and 11 at 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4. A post-show discussion with veterans returning from wars will be held on Oct. 4 at 5 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $25; $15 for active and retired members of the military.

The theater is located at the Drama Learning Center at 9130-I Red Branch Rd., Columbia.

Back on the home front

Technicolor Life is the latest play in Rep Stage’s current season devoted to women playwrights. The Jami Brandli play, which will have its world premiere during the Oct. 21 to Nov. 8 run, revolves around the return home of a U.S. veteran, this time from the Iraq war.

The vet is a wounded woman soldier named Billie. Maxine, the vet’s teenage sister, has secretly created a dating profile for Billie with another wounded vet. Meanwhile, their Hollywood musical-loving, wise-cracking, wine-and-cigarettes-consuming grandma announces she’ll be ending her life with the help of the Final Exit Network, and would like her family to support her dying wish by throwing her a party.

Tickets to the play, which has been described as a “dramedy,” are $40 general admission; $38 for seniors and military; $15 for students with ID cards. Wednesday and Thursday performances are pay-what-you-can. The play will be presented in the Smith Theater of Howard Community College, located at 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy. For more information, call (443) 518-1500 or see www.repstage.org.