Wednesday, July 11, 2007

You dine, they dance

A program looks at 30: Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre

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Steve Wolf
Worlds collide: ‘‘Ragtime,” a musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel, combines the stories of real life figures and fictional families. Thomas Hedgpeth plays Father, Tiffany Gardner plays Mother and Zack Shapiro is the little boy. Ryan Sellars is Tateh, with Olivia Liu as the little girl.
A pearl anniversary is quite a milestone. Thirty years — that’s a good long run for a marriage, and an even longer run for an arts institution like Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre program.

‘‘Thirty years,” sighs Susan Hoffman, the program’s director. ‘‘This will be our 60th show.”

Hoffman, chair of Montgomery College’s speech, dance and theater department, has been involved from the start. But she’s not ready to rest on her laurels.

‘‘The 25th [anniversary] was more of a celebration,” she says. ‘‘We’re excited and we’re pleased to have gone 30 years, but it’s introspective.”

And slightly bittersweet: Theater production technician Stephen Campanella is retiring as soon as the sets he built for this summer’s productions are struck.

But at the moment, the show’s the thing. ‘‘Dames at Sea” ran the first two weeks in July, and ‘‘Ragtime” opens this weekend. Hoffman and her crew have a lot to do. Maybe it’s just show biz. No matter how many years you endure, no matter how many hit shows and young stars you produce, no matter how well-loved and well-received your work may be, the pressure is on every time the curtain goes up.

‘‘They say that insanity is doing the same thing and expecting the same result,” muses Hoffman. ‘‘We expect to get better.”

Spread the wealth

When it comes to Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre, either you have experienced it or you have not. Most people experience it from the point of view of the audience: purchase tickets, come hungry, enjoy the buffet and the energetic young waiters — then settle in to watch those waiters take the stage.

Some people experience Summer Dinner Theatre from the stage — like Sein-Khayri Lewis, who plays Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in ‘‘Ragtime.”

‘‘The people that come out, that we wait on, they’re really nice people,” says Lewis, 20, who has been working in hotels since age 15. ‘‘They’re happy and they love coming to dinner theater.”

For cast members, the key is charming the audience before they get onstage.

‘‘You have a support system already, before you even go and act,” he marvels. ‘‘You’ve given them cake, and they feel like they know you before you go on stage. They’re looking through the program, trying to find you.”

Lewis is a student at Montgomery College, although the program is open to students from other universities and high schools, and members of the community, too.

The program boasts some very successful alumni, the loftiest among them Brad Oscar and Brad Nacht, both of whom are currently in national touring productions of ‘‘The Producers,” and Tori Amos.

The cast of 48 (‘‘18 to 20 people larger that ever,” Hoffman notes) ranges in age from 8 to 67. There’s a full orchestra, too, and a platoon of technicians and designers creating costumes props and sets.

‘‘We do musicals that have enough people in them to support the program,” the director says. ‘‘We kind of spread the wealth.”

The student performers must audition for their roles; the technicians must apply for production work. And once they’re on board, it’s a 10-week educational experience, one that comes with college credit.

‘‘Thirty years ago, we had students designing the set with four faculty members,” says Hoffman. ‘‘There were seven of us all together.”

Now there are 12 tech interns and 13 management interns on hand to help, plus Campanella and managing director Rick Pevey, both of whom, like Hoffman, have been around from the beginning.

Old friends

Thirty years of Summer Dinner Theatre, 30 years of sets.

‘‘I’ve built every single one of them, all of them,” says Campanella. ‘‘Some of them I did sound and lights.”

It’s not that this is a program on a shoestring budget, but it is a program that raises funds — and awareness — for Montgomery College and operates on a number of levels.

‘‘We have church groups, retirement communities, Red Hat ladies coming in,” says Campanella. ‘‘For six weeks every summer, we are the public face of Montgomery College.”

Sitting on a bench outside the Campanella motions to the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center behind him.

‘‘Our young people, on the stage for Summer Dinner Theatre, are expected to be as good as the professional touring companies that come to the Parilla Center,” he says. ‘‘And guess what: They are!”

Then he laughs a little.

‘‘A glass of wine before the show doesn’t hurt,” he admits.

Dinner theater has a history in the area: Most folks who grew up here remember the Harlequin Dinner Theater in Rockville, and Toby’s Dinner Theatre in Columbia has been training actors and entertaining diners since 1979. (‘‘Toby’s a good friend of our program,” says Hoffman, who first met theater owner Toby Orenstein at the Rockville Jewish Community Center.) It makes for a convenient, stress-free evening — or afternoon — when the meal and the entertainment can be found at the same destination.

For Campanella, though, entertaining the audience and teaching the students go hand and hand.

‘‘There’s a certain joy to my work,” he says. ‘‘I’m not a college professor, but I do get to teach.

‘‘All of us, I know, are replaceable, but there’s a collective knowledge. I’ve been here so long, I know what buttons to push, and where the buttons are. I probably installed the buttons 30 years ago!”

Past and future

So what’s at the heart of the Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre experience? The musical.

‘‘‘Ragtime’ has a message,” says Hoffman, noting that while ‘‘Dames at Sea” was ‘‘all fluff and entertainment,” ‘‘Ragtime” deals with more serious themes.

The Tony-winning adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 historical novel, ‘‘Ragtime” examines race, class, immigration and integration in New York at the start of the 20th century.

‘‘I took an African American history class last year at Montgomery College,” says Lewis. ‘‘Ragtime music was a big deal.”

And understanding the issues of the era in which his character, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. lived is as important to Lewis as nailing the singing and dancing that’s required.

‘‘To really play him the right way you have to research the times; you have to understand the issues,” says Lewis, who has been singing since he was 6. ‘‘He’s a strong character, and I’m a strong person, too. He’s a very sharp person — he’s got dignity and respect for others ... but he’s somebody not to mess with.”

Unlike the actor who plays him. Lewis bubbles with talk about his plans and dreams for the future, and he speaks with awe about his experience at Montgomery College.

‘‘The sets, the scenery, the friendships,” he says. ‘‘I was just taken back to my high school years — I just fell in love with acting all over again.”

Falling in love is how it starts. Ask anyone who has ever celebrated a pearl anniversary.

Montgomery College Summer Dinner Theatre presents ‘‘Ragtime” in the Theatre Arts Arena, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville through July 29. Tickets for Summer Dinner Theatre are $35.50 for adults, $25.25 for children ages 12 and younger. Prices include the performance and a full dinner buffet. At Friday and Saturday night performances, the doors will open at 6:30 p.m., with a show time of 8:15 p.m. On Sunday, the buffet will open at 12:30 p.m., with a 2:15 p.m. show time. Call 240-567-7676 or visit⁄summerdinnertheatre.