Sumptuous costumes that take your breath away. Glorious voices in soaring harmonies, accompanied by a live orchestra. Corseted ladies on swings, and a storyline that encompasses the sweep of American history at the turn of the century. That’s Ragtime at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Beautifully, beautifully executed.
It’s all so damned spectacular– and so unexpected– though that shouldn’t be the case. Toby’s has been raising the bar for local performances for years, and for those who tend to think of dinner theater as a slightly outdated form, think of Toby’s as being not simply dinner but a Feast.
And that’s what this reprise of their 2004 production is: a feast for the eyes, the ears, and the brain.
Ragtime isn’t a simple Broadway toetapper, it’s a superb musical based on a superb book. E.L. Doctorow’s monumental tome has been perfectly translated into musical form, with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally. The original Broadway production won several Tonys, and rightly so- it’s a magnificent achievement in terms of both theatre and social commentary.
This production more than does it justice, and in terms of production values, it’s as near to a Broadway show as you’ll find in our area: it’s a stunning achievement. I must tell you frankly that any overblown sentence I might write couldn’t really convey my delight with every minute of this show.
As an audience, we were carried away from the start. From the first opening song, sung with such perfection by the impossibly talented cast, to the exquisite costumes, set design, and live musical accompaniment, each aspect of the show was spot on. Not a misfire seemed to occur: there wasn’t a single poor actor, or trebly voice, or poor lighting for me to focus on. I just watched the show: and that’s saying something, folks. As a reviewer, it’s my job to also be aware of the audience as well during a show, to see if everyone else loves/hates/tolerates the performance. I forgot to do that. I didn’t want to miss anything.
The production is quite beautiful. Toby’s is a small in-the-round space, without much room for set, but even so, we sat at a ballgame, saw two ships facing each other, saw that bejeweled lady on a swing. All was accomplished with simple suggestions of setpieces, finely executed by Set Designer David A. Hopkins.
As for costumes, no one seems to stay in the same costume for more than ten minutes. It is mindboggling to imagine the backstage organization that must occur to make such a large cast so impeccably turned out for the many changes of scene in this show. Hats, gloves, waistcoats, hose, tallits, highbutton shoes, scarves- it’s all there and it’s all been well researched by costumer Lawrence B. Munsey. Many of these are the original costumes built for the first Toby’s production of Ragtime back in 2004, but you’d never know it; most look to have been scratch built for this show.
Staged and directed by both Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, it’s a whirlwind of color and form: pacing is fast but not frenetic, and the overall movement of the show never lets the audience drift away, rather a feat given the fine dinner we all had. (The food is also unexpectedly good- is there anything these folks do badly?)
The cast is impeccable: fine acting, fine singing, fine dancing, it’s all there, from the ensemble to the leads. Standouts are David Bosley-Reynolds as Father, Joshua Simon as Tateh, and Elizabeth Rayca as Mother. Samantha McEwen as Sarah and Kevin McAllister as Coalhouse Walker are peerless; Sarah’s solo will make you cry quietly in your seat and Coalhouse’s journey from musician to martyr will make you angrier than hell.
The show itself packs a punch: the book deals with racial injustice, police brutality, immigration, and America’s struggle to impart justice to its diverse citizenry. Sound familiar? Though it’s based in the early 1900s, the social ills then are the same ones we read about today: though many things have changed, many things have not. There’s a lot in here that is not standard musical fare: the N word is used much as it was back then, murder and mayhem are integral to the story, and the subject matter is a serious one, though it is by no means all bleak: there’s a good deal of humor packed in at intervals to move the story along.
So here is my recommendation: this is an excellent opportunity to see a first class show, have a fine dinner, and, at intermission, ponder with fellow theatregoers about what it is to be an American, both then and now. It’s a good show to take adolescents or teenagers to, both for an historical perspective and a current-day one. It’s not so very different, the past and the present, and yet this play ends on a soaring note: Yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for us and our country.
Ragtime . Music by Stephen Flaherty . Book by Terrence McNally . Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens . Directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey . Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.