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Theater review

Laurel Mill Playhouse's 'Ragtime' unleashes score of Harlem rhythm

Musical continues on Main Street through June 17

By Patti Restivo, prestivo@comcast.net

12:24 PM EDT, June 6, 2012

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The Laurel Mill Playhouse had plenty of unexpected drama to compete with June 1, as storms interrupted transportation and threatened to drop tornadoes during its run of "Ragtime — The Musical," directed by Michael Hartsfield, of Laurel.

But in spite of pre-show power outages, the lively show opened on time, unleashing a score of Harlem ragtime rhythm, traditional Jewish klezmer and up-tempo American parlor songs with an impressive force of its own.

Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, with words and music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Broadway runs of "Ragtime" in 1998 and 2009 racked up dozens of award nominations and won nine Tony Awards. Recreating its dazzle in a space too small to stage movable sets, or to physically fit 20 or so musicians with a larger cast, had to be a challenge for Laurel Mill Playhouse.

But veteran Playhouse director Hartsfield, along with musical director Stephen Deininger, choreographer Katie Sheldon and a cast of talented local artists, have managed to create a solid glimpse into "Ragtime's" soul.

Hartsfield's minimalist set shouts Americana in its folksy color scheme and symbolic painted silhouettes. The show opens as three converging factions of society set the scene around 1906 New York in the prologue. Sans a live orchestra, Deininger (who also portrays Tateh beautifully) adds synthesizer and percussion to the recorded accompaniment, and Elaine Beckman plays piano unseen.

First on are the upper middle-class WASPs of New Rochelle: Michael Glen, as Little Boy; Brian Binney, as Father; Katie Sheldon, as Mother; David Hill, as Younger Brother; and Scott Bringen, as Grandfather. The lyrics, "there were no Negroes" paradoxically summons the Harlemites: Anwar Thomas, as Coalhouse Walker Jr.; Samantha McEwen, as Sarah; and Dorian Elie and Laurel residents LaAngel Hall and Eva Njoku, as members of the Harlem ensemble. And keeping with the theme, "there were no immigrants" beckons Deininger's Tateh and Sophia Nasreen Riazi-Sekowski, as his daughter.

Lastly, "real" historical figures of the day join in: Booker T. Washington, played by Raphael Shaw; Harry Houdini, played by Brian Mellen; J.P. Morgan, played by Christopher Carothers; Henry Ford, played by Jason Buchta; Emma Goldman, played by Heidi Toll; Evelyn Nesbit, played by Hannah Everhart; Adm. Peary, played by David Hale; and Matthew Henson, played by Marquis Evans.

By the time the full and always beautifully costumed ensemble appears — which includes Maya Wilcox, Mary Leaphart, Brianna Everett, John Sheldon, Mary Czar, Laurel resident Madeleine Jones, Derek Cooper, Samantha Sheldon, Kat McKerrow, and Aaron and Ethan Harewood — Sheldon's powerful choreography and the impressive quality of song and dance are a given.

Mostly sung, the story begins as Father leaves his family to go on an expedition with historic explorer Adm. Peary, passing a ship bringing Jewish immigrant Tateh to America. Younger Brother becomes smitten with chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit; and Mother rescues an abandoned newborn baby and assumes responsibility for the child and his confused young mother, Sarah.

In America, Tateh struggles desperately to care for his daughter, selling silhouette cutouts to survive; while Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker searches for his lover. Coalhouse buys a Model T Ford (a symbol of freedom) and, once he finds Sarah and learns they have a child together, dreams of becoming a family and traveling the country when the baby is old enough.

Younger Brother stumbles on an anarchist rally led by Emma Goldman. Tateh invents a "movie book" to amuse his sickly daughter, and Will Conklin's squad of racist volunteer firemen accosts Coalhouse and Sarah coming home from a picnic. They destroy Coalhouse's car, setting him on a dark path in a tumultuous journey where achieving freedom and justice regardless of race or origin becomes the ultimate American Dream.

Act 2 develops interestingly into real and fictional events driven by anarchy and violence, but ends with a surprising new beginning.

Laurel Mill Playhouse's performances of the 30-plus musical numbers in "Ragtime" are, for the most part, breathtaking. In particular, McEwen's vocals as Sarah are always exquisite.

And while all of the performances stand out, several warrant mention.

Thoroughly immersed in her role as Tateh's daughter, Riazi-Sekowski is always fascinating to watch; Binney's thought-provoking interpretation of Father lingers long after his performance; Sheldon as Mother is deep and compelling; Shaw's Booker T. Washington is delightfully intense; and Toll's strength of delivery fits Emma Goldman to a T.

Last, but not least, Thomas' performance as Coalhouse Walker Jr. inspires standing ovations.

"Ragtime" continues through June 17, Fridays and Saturdays, at 8 p.m.; and Sundays, at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $18. Students, 18 and under; and seniors, 65 and over, pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.