Ragtime brings early 20th century to life

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Robert Friedman

Kevin McAllister plays Coalhouse Walker Jr., and Ada Satterfield plays his wife, Sarah, in the musical Ragtime, which tells the powerful stories of three different families in early 20th century New York. The musical, which features a large and outstanding cast, will be on stage at Toby’s Dinner Theatre through Nov. 15.
Photo by Jeri Tidwell

Remember the bad ol’ days, 100 years or so ago, when multi-millionaires ruled the economic and political roosts, when immigrants were barely tolerated, and when blacks tried to show that their lives and their dignity mattered?

Well, those times — not really gone by, are they? — are being played out with vigor, verve and considerable talent in the historical musical Ragtime, now playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia.

Based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally, the production has much of the drama, if not the full scope, of the author’s great original work, plus pulsating songs, many of which are syncopated ragtime melodies.

The songs are performed by a cast of very professional singers (even though before the curtain went up and during intermission they serve the dinner theater audience coffee and drinks).

The multi-award-winning play was first staged on Broadway in 1998. It lasted two years before it had to close because of the huge cost of the lavish production. A toned-down 2009 revival that went from the Kennedy Center to the Great White Way received more kudos.

Meanwhile, in 2003, Toby Orenstein directed a version of the musical at her dinner theater that earned 12 Helen Hayes nominations and won three of the coveted awards.

Stories of the American dream

She’s done it again, along with co-director Lawrence Munsey, in a wonderful production with her biggest cast ever, effectively using her intimate theatre-in-the-round to evoke ships meeting at sea, immigrants rushing on shore beneath the Statue of Liberty, union workers clashing with strike-breaking armed guards, an automobile assembly line, the boardwalk at Atlantic City, a Harlem street, and assorted other settings.

Like the 1975 novel, the play is set in turn-of-the-century New York and weaves together three stories: one of an upper-middle-class family living outside the city in New Rochelle; another of a newly arrived Jewish immigrant and his little daughter, and the life and eventual hard times of a young Harlem musician.

The protagonists all chase the elusive American dream, circa 1902-1914. The play accents the wealth and poverty, the freedom and prejudice, and the hope and despair of those years.

Cameos of such turn-of-the-century celebs as escape artist Harry Houdini, black educator Booker T. Washington, auto manufacturer Henry Ford, political activist-agitator Emma Goldman, and pop star-glamour girl Evelyn Nesbit take to the stage, and play sometimes significant parts in the lives of the main characters in the play.

Rousing, inspiring music

While the songs of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) may not have reached any pop music charts of the day, they are by turns rousing (the amazing “Ragtime” opening number), moving (“Your Daddy’s Son,” “Wheels of a Dream”), inspiring (“Justice”) and heartbreaking (“Till we Reach That Day”). 

The play concentrates most significantly on the story of the ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., whose life is upended when he seeks justice for an insult to his dignity and the destruction of his property (a model-T Ford). Kevin McAllister, who plays a principled, outspoken, hopeful, then revolutionary Coalhouse, has a great voice to go along with his impressive bearing.

Other standouts in the cast (which is top-notch overall) are Elizabeth Rayca, as the sensitive and sensible mother of the New Rochelle family; Ada Satterfield (a beautiful voice!), as Sarah, Coalhouse’s love and the mother of their child, and Josh Simon, whose Tateh (Father in Yiddish) is filled with an immigrant’s faith in a successful life in the there and then. McAllister and Satterfield deliver an emotionally stirring duet in “Wheels of a Dream.”

Also giving commanding performances are Coby Kay Callahan, as the fiery anarchist-labor organizer Emma Goldman, and David Bosley-Reynolds, who plays the Father of the upper-class family, who doesn’t understand why he can’t understand the changes going on around him.

The costumes by co-director Munsey are wonderfully of their time. Ilona Kessell, who won a Helen Hayes award for her choreography of Toby’s 2003 Ragtime production, is back in charge of the well-paced choreography, although the show is more all-singing than all-dancing.

And special kudos to music director Ross Scott Rawlings, whose six-piece orchestra, hidden away in a room above the stage, sometimes seemed double the size, as it expertly set the pace and accompanied the singers and dancers. 

OK, let’s not go completely overboard. Parts of the Second Act seem less gripping than the First Act of the three-hour show. Still, Ragtime is just about all any playgoer could want from a dinner theater production of a lavish musical designed for Broadway.

The show will go on through Nov. 15.

Toby’s Dinner Theatre is located at 5900 Symphony Woods Rd., Columbia.

Ticket prices range from $55 to $60, including an all-you-can-eat brunch or dinner buffet. For times, reservations and further information, call (410) 730-8311 or see www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.