Little Theatre of Alexandria RagtimeBy Bob Ashby • Jan 28th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Little Theatre of Alexandria: (Info) (Web)
Little Theatre of Alexandria, Alexandria, VA
Through February 15th
2:45 with intermission
Reviewed January 25th, 2013
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, the musical Ragtime (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) is a pageant of the American experience in the early years of the 20th century. The musical focuses on three sets of characters from the novel: an unnamed upper middle class white family living in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle; a Jewish Latvian immigrant and his daughter; and a Negro (the term used throughout the script) piano player and his family. They interact with one another and with a host of historical characters, who also interact with each other in fictional ways.
In Little Theater of Alexandria’s (LTA) production, a striking series of large turning gears and wheels, like those of a watch, dominate the set (designed by J. Andrew Simmons) and announce the theme of the play, as articulated by director Michael Kharfen: how time changes, but doesn’t necessarily heal, everything both in personal lives and the life of a society.
Mother (Jennifer Lyons Pagnard), a comfortable WASP housewife, begins to change when Father (Shaun Moe) goes off on a lengthy polar expedition, leaving her to run the family business. But the real agent of change in her life arrives in the form of a Negro foundling, who she takes in for reasons she doesn’t fully understand (a beautifully sung “What Kind of Woman”). The child’s mother, the initially silent and withdrawn Sarah (Aerika Saxe), soon follows. Then Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Malcolm Lee), a well-dressed, well-spoken, musician arrives, conducting a lengthy, persistent courtship of Sarah. Saxe, with the outstanding solo voice in the production, and Lee combine in the sweet “Sarah Brown Eyes” and the naïvely optimistic “Wheels of a Dream.”
The wheels in question belong to a green Model-T Ford (the famous “any color as long as it is black” policy did not take hold until 1914), of which Walker is exceedingly proud. His pride — in general as well as concerning the car — attract the enmity of the local racist fire brigade, with ultimately tragic results. The LTA technical staff can take pride in the design and construction of the nearly full-size car set piece, which members of the cast assemble on stage.
Meanwhile, the immigrant Tateh (Michael Gale), who ekes out a living drawing silhouettes, discovers that if you flip the pages of a book consisting of related drawings, the pictures appear to move. This insight leads him into the nascent movie industry (concerning which Gales sings the amusing “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”), setting up a cute meet for him and his daughter and Mother and her self-possessed young son (Brian McNamara). The kids hit it off; the adults sing fondly of their love for “Our Children.”
Father, a traditionalist who has great difficulty comprehending the changes in his wife’s outlook on him and their marriage, tries to connect with his son by attending a Giants game at the Polo Grounds (“What a Game”), an effort humorously doomed by the well-choreographed vulgarity of the crowd. Mother’s Younger Brother (Ben Cherington), a rather lost soul, eventually tries finding himself by joining an urban terrorist group led by the embittered Walker (“Make Them Hear You” being the stirring anthem of Walker’s radicalism).
Most of the historical characters that pop up in the musical — Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbitt, and others — are sketched very briefly and lightly. (Doctorow characterizes them in much greater depth, but adapting the novel for the stage necessarily left much of their material, such as Tateh’s involvement in the Lawrence, Massachusetts, mill strike, on the cutting room floor.) Nesbitt (Claire O’Brien) does get an ironic song about the scandalous trial in which she was involved — the 20th century’s first “Crime of the Century” — and gets to squeal “wheee” repeatedly. But the most interesting, and most thoroughly explored, historical figure is Emma Goldman (Janette Moman), a labor leader and anarchist. Goldman was a fascinating figure, who turns up in a number of well-regarded scripts (e.g., Assassins, Reds) as well as the history books, and Moman makes her one of the most memorable characters in Ragtime.
Saying that Ragtime is a pageant of the American experience is literally true in one sense. Particularly in the large ensemble numbers, the company either stands and sings (e.g., “Till We Reach that Day”) or engages in well-organized large group movement (e.g., “Prologue”). The ensemble has a full, rich sound in these numbers, the delivery of which is clear. In combination with the somewhat schematic presentation of the major characters, however — the unnamed family representing the white establishment, Tateh representing immigrants etc. — the overall effect is less than dynamic.
Francine Krasowska’s orchestra is spot-on throughout, and the use of ragtime music both as accompaniment and metaphor is one of the most effective parts of the production. The wide variety of costumes for the large cast (designed by Jean Schlichting and Kit Sibley) is period-appropriate, well-suited to the characters, and colorful to see (some of the bathing costumes in the Atlantic City scene are particularly fun). Execution at a high level of the acting, musical, movement, and technical aspects of a production is expected from an A-level theater company like LTA, and this production — which is sold out throughout its run — does not disappoint.
Like many a book or play, Ragtime is as much about the period in which it was written as about the period it portrays. The contemporary subtext of Ragtime is as important, and about as subtle, as that of The Crucible. With a black man taking violent action in response to racist repression, an affluent young white man becoming radicalized, and a wife and mother struggling with “the problem that has no name” some 50 years before The Feminine Mystique, Ragtime explores the issues of the 1960s and 70s as much as it talks about the world of 1906-15. But it does so without being simply a history lesson or political commentary.
E.L. Doctorow, author of “Ragtime,” the book this musical is based on, wrote about his novel: “I stumbled into the idea that a sense of time was as much an organizing principle for a book as a sense of place.” In “Ragtime,” a new century (the 20th) dawns, and time changes everything. Ragtime the musical evokes this theme through the panorama of history and at the personal level in the lives of three families. The period of Ragtime, from 1900 til 1915, was electrifying in America as the country became the destination of the world. It was the place where you could make your own life, free from Old World conventions, and emerge from the vestiges of repression both abroad and at home. The unifying principle of the country was moving forward, that time is of the essence and a new discovery was around every corner. The country exceeded 75 million people, J.P. Morgan forged U.S. Steel, Henry Ford founded his motor company launching the assembly line, the first World Series was played, the Wright Brothers conquered the air with powered flight, workers united in the first radical union, the NAACP championed civil rights, Admiral Peary claimed to reach the North Pole, the Armory Show introduced the country to modern art, and even the ice cream cone was invented. Music took on a new, exciting rhythm with ragtime, its syncopations pulsating with movement. Henry James wrote of the era: “The very pulses of air turn into revelations. You see into the unseen.” As was the case then, the promise of America remains tempered by the realities of discrimination and poverty, with which we continue to struggle. At its heart, Ragtime is pure storytelling, intertwining three fictional families — their hopes and aspirations, their yearnings for love and belonging, their sacrifice and pursuit of justice — within this explosive era. Ragtime, with its passion and power, takes us on a journey just as far as our hearts can go.
I’ve loved this story since I read the book more than 35 years ago. The month before we started rehearsals, Doctorow was in town for a reading. I attended and told him afterward that I was directing Ragtime at LTA. He asked all about the production, then wished us luck and said, “Break a leg.” I’ve been encouraged and grateful ever since for the talent, inspiration and heart of our cast and the ingenuity, invention and dedication of our production team. I thank the LTA Board of Governors for their confidence. This production would not have been possible without the amazing gifts of Francine Krasowska and Ivan Davila, the tireless commitment of Charles Dragonette and Marg Soroos, and the graceful patience and stewardship of Sharon Field, Bobbie Herbst, and Rance Willis.
Photos by Keith Waters for Kx Photography
- Mother’s Younger Brother: Ben Cherington
- Ensemble, Henson, Harlem Man, Coalhouse Follower, Umpire, Black Attorney: Ricardo Coleman
- Ensemble, Harlem Woman: Kadira Coley
- Grandfather: Charles Dragonette
- Ensemble, Harlem Man, Coalhouse Follower: Jonathan Fair
- Ensemble, Conductor 1: Rene Kieth Flores
- Tateh: Michael Gale
- Ensemble, Town Hall Bureaucrat, Reporter, Showgirl: Sarah Gale
- Little Girl: Lindsey Gattuso
- J.P. Morgan, Judge: Larry Grey
- Ensemble, Harlem Woman: Tiara Hairston
- Little Boy: Grant Hamilton
- Booker T. Washington: Rodney Jackson
- Ensemble, New Rochelle Policeman, Fireman, White Attorney, Juror: Justin Latus
- Coalhouse Walker, Jr: Malcom Lee
- Ensemble, Brigit, Baron’s Assistant, Showgirl: Holly McDade
- Little Boy: Brian McNamara
- Ensemble, Conductor 2, Fireman NYC Policeman, Juror: Derek Marsh
- Father: Shaun Moe
- Emma Goldman: Janette Moman
- Sarah’s Friend, Harlem Woman: Corisa Myers
- Evelyn Nesbit: Claire O’Brien
- Mother: Jennifer Lyons Pagnard
- Ensemble, Newsboy, Welfare Official, Showgirl: Rebecca Phillips
- Ensemble, Harlem Woman: Jessica Pryde
- Ensemble, Newsboy, Reporter, Sob Sister: Hannah Rosman
- Sarah: Aerika Saxe
- Admiral Perry, DA Whitman, Henry Ford: Buzz Schmidt
- Ensemble, Second Bureaucrat, Reporter, Sob Sister: Guenevere Spilsbury
- Ensemble, Kathleen, Reporter, Sob Sister: Jennifer Strand
- Ensemble, Willie Conklin, Juror: Nate Whiting
- Ensemble, Man, Fan, Juror: James Woods
- Ensemble, Harlem Man, Coalhouse Follower: Roger Yawson
- Producers: Sharon Field, Bobbie Herbst, Rance Willis
- Director: Michale Kharfen
- Music Director: Francine Krasowska
- Choreographer: Ivan Davila
- Stage Managers: Charles Dragonette, Marg Soroos
- Assistant Stage Managers: Eileen Doherty, Jim Hutzler,
- Set Design: J. Andrew Simmons
- Set Constuction: Jim Hutzler
- Assisted by: Chris Feldman, Jeff Gathers, Eddy Roger Parker, Dan Remmers, Bob Spivey, JanaLee Sponberg
- Set Painting: Mary Hutzler, Erin Sullivan
- Assisted by: Jim Hutzler, Patty Lord, Heather Norcross, Ned Olgeman, Leslie Reed, Jayn Rife,
- Scenic Painting, Drops: Mary Hutzler, Erin Sullivan
- Assisted by: Jim Hutzler, Patty Lord, Heather Norcross, Jayn Rife, Valerie Wohlleben
- Set Decoration: Rachel Alberts, Bobbie Herbst
- Assisted by: Robin Havens-Parker, Mary Hutzler, Russell Wyland
- Lighting Design: Ken and Patti Crowley
- Master Electrician: Pam Leonowich
- Assisted by: Marzanne Claiborne, Kimberly Cargo, Eileen Doherty, Jim Hartz, Robert Kraus, Rachel Lau, Michael J O’Connor, Liz Owens, Nancy Owens, Donna Reynolds
- Sound Design: Alan Wray
- Assisted by: Marzanne Claiborne, David Correia, Margaret Evans-Joyce, Jack Sever, Liz Tipton
- Special Effects: Dan Remmers, J. Andrew Simmons, Russell Wyland
- Property Design: Betty Dolan, Leslie Reed
- Assisted by: Emma Baskir, Marzanne Claiborne, Jayn Rife, Joe Rodriguez, Jack Rollins, Toni Sanford, Sherry Singer, Rebecca Sheehy, Adrian Steel
- Costume Design: Jean Schlichting, Kit Sibley
- Assisted by: Julie Bowersett, Kevin Lane, Joan Lawrence
- Wardrobe: Barbara Helsing, Margaret Snow
- Assisted by: Alisa Beyinson, Lloyd Bittinger, Jean Coyle, Bonnie Faircloth, Patty Greksouk, Marian Holmes, Sharon Napolitano-Clark, Rachel Pharr
- Hair/Wigs/Makeup: Robin Havens Parker, Bette Williams
- Assisted by: Mary Lou Bruno, Catherine Colosimo, Esther Covington, Elizabeth Keith, Claire O’Brien, Aerika Saxe, Natalie Turkevich
- Audition Pianist: Matt Jeffrey, Bill van Lear
- Rehearsal Pianist: Matt Jeffrey, Elisa Rosman
- Audition Choreography Assistant: Claire O’Brien
- Rigging: Russell Wyland
- Photographer: Keith Waters
- Auditions: Mary Lou Bruno
- Assisted by: Eileen Doherty, Barbara Helsing, Elise Kolle, Patty Lord, Margaret Snow, Erin Sullivan
- Double Tech Dinner: Cyndi Martin
- Assisted by: Addie Bryant, Shane Cooke
- Opening Night Party: Dan and Margie Remmers
- Assisted by: Lloyd Bittinger, Claire Gibson Giraud, Cyndie Martin, Shirley Lord-Cooper, Eddy Roger Parker, Sherry Singer, Caitlin Sneff, Wendy Sneff
Disclaimer: Little Theatre of Alexandria provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/10090.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.