Ragtime: The Musical – Inequality. Racism. Murder. Jaunty tunes!


Ragtime, Photo Credit: Nate Pesce


Sigh, Ragtime.  What always strikes me about this heavy-handed turn-of-the-century melting pot-arama is how perfectly poised it is as social justice theater for the kind of audience member who attends a musical matinee on a Sunday afternoon in mid-spring.  You know what I mean.  Immigrants are always unfailingly noble and swathed in babushkas speaking adorably broken English.  Black people are literally colorful characters who seem to have nothing to do but hang around pool halls and speakeasies, sprinkling a little spice into humdrum white middle or upperclass life.  And, speaking of white people, there are two kinds: Good and Bad.  The Good  (usually women, at least until they turn their menfolk around) are stuffy and a liiiiiittle racist at first, but warm up quickly once their hearts are touched.  The Bad spit vulgar epithets whilst waving around guns and breaking things.  Also, very important:  these two kind of white people are NEVER EVER to be found in the same actual white person.  So it goes.  It’s not that Ragtime never touches on deeper or darker themes, but it always pulls back quickly so as to not alienate it’s core dinner-theater audience.  This leads to some hilariously jarring tone changes.  Police beat downs:  Bad.  Moving pictures: Good.  Burning buildings: Suck.  Baseball: Fun!  Tenement stench: Boo.  Atlantic City: Yay!  Oh, alright, I’m getting down now.  Ragtime centers around three woven groups of characters.  Batting for Team Immigrant is Tateh (Jacob Stuart) and his daughter (Gwendolyn Lowell), Jews from across the sea who are struggling to survive on Tateh’s meager income as a street silhouette artist.  Over in Harlem we’ve got Coalhouse (Jamar Brown), a local ragtime singer/pianist and Sarah (Shayla Lowe), a young black couple who, after becoming accidentally pregnant, fall in love amid the overt colorfastness of New Rochelle.  Through the Whites Only door we have an uppercrusty family known only as Mother (Santina Maiolatesi), Father (Cory Jones), Grandfather (Dave Guy), Little Boy (Theodore Yu), and Younger Brother (Brian Nabors).  The story truly begins when Mother discovers a young black child buried in her garden.  When police arrive to arrest the child’s mother, Sarah, Mother surpisingly finds herself deeply moved by the desperate act.  She impulsively decides to take both Sarah and the infant in.  And thus begins the breaking down of the walls that divide : black, white, Jew, Christian, rich, poor.  Popping into all this are various personalities of the day, including Booker T. Washington (Raymond Chapman), Emma Goldman (Lauren Blake Williams), Evelyn Nesbit (Katie Tyler), etc.   David Gregory directs and mightily mans the helm of this giant ship, coordinating what I felt was an enormously successful production, if not exactly an overly inventive one – the staging here deju vued me a bit from Ragtimes of yore.  The show opens with a big bangarang number, “Ragtime”, and just never goes downhill from there.  There are some AMAZING voices on display.  Like, godDAMNED can they sing, and mostly good and LOUD, too.  Shayla Lowe’s tone is gorgeously rich and her range cray as she brings down the fucking HOUSE during the haunting “Your Daddy’s Son”.  Lowe is generally pretty fantastic as the doomed Sarah, making us feel for her plight from the moment she steps onto the stage.  Santina Maiolatesi also sings the pants off of it, especially in the showstopper “Better Than Before”.  In general, I enjoyed her Mother a touch more in the second act.  After Maiolatesi loosened up a little and really let go, her emoting finally made it all the way to her eyes and it went from good to breathtaking.  Speaking of eyes, in the “easy on ’em” category Jamar Brown proves he’s not just a pretty face as he smoothly transitions from a lovestruck young buck into a broodingly bitter and angry man.  He’s no vocal slouch either (although he’s not really playing that piano) especially in the tear-jerking “Make Them Hear You”.  Cory Jones had some shiny moments  in “Journey” and the reprise of “New Music” – I found him jovial and accessible with a pretty, honeyed voice.  Brian Nabors turned out to be quite the crooner especially in “The Night That Emma Goldman Spoke at Union Square.”  Jacob Stuart pulls off Tateh with a gentle, easy grace and was my choice, acting-wise, among the main company.  His voice is gorge, too, notably in the first act’s “Journey On” and “Gliding”.  My favorite among the supporting cast was Kate Tyler doing a just darling Evelyn Nesbit and who is a cutie pie right down to her rosy little toes (WEEEEEEE!!!) during the totally fun “Crime of the Century”.  I was fond of Lauren Blake Williams also, a very effective, strong and…dare I say it?  Cool Emma Goldman.  Go ON, girl.  As is usual with musicals trying to cram lots of people onto a smallish stage (although this one rotated with boxes flying every which way -more on this in a sec) the dancing (choreographed by Aysha Upchurch) was a little less elaborate and developed than the singing with the notable exceptions of “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “Crime of the Century”.  The set (design by Jeff Harrison) was made up of the aforementioned boxes on wheels, which was pretty genius as they intricately folded out and in and made themselves into every damned thing including cars, attics, steamships and, in one memorable scene, even a casket – though all those sharpish corners hurtling around are just asking for a finger pinch.  Tucked in among the boxes were approximately five million props, making me feel tired for Vicki Sussman, the Property Designer, who has probably had parasols on the brain lately.  Hung high above were suspended windows which suggested the closely packed tenements of New York City.  The show made heavy, heavy use of projections (design by Riki K.) which, while at times successful (such as the silhouettes floating over the stage during “Gliding”) were mostly distracting.  Sometimes a little lightness of hand is appreciated with the rotating orbs of color, especially when a single spot hitting a glorious singer is still 1000X more effective.  Costumes were Belle Epoch perfect, kudos to designer Shannon Maddox and her team for outfitting the entire cast in magnificent style.  One thing, though – unfortunately sound levels, at least at the show I attended, were off, off, off.  Mics were blaring, lines were missed, music at points obscured the singing.  Took a little to get used to it, but the cast shrugged it off and ultimately it didn’t really matter.

BOTTOM LINE:  Ragtime: The Musical is a barstormin’ big timin’ season ender that is about as polished is you’ll ever see small theater get.  It doesn’t take many risks and stays fairly firmly inside the box, but when the box is this pretty, there’s really no need to bitch about it.  If this is your cup of tea, you’ll find it brewed damned fine.  Everyone involved in this production should be proud of it.  Good show.

Running at Howard County Community College Art Collective until May 18th




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