Through March 17|
RAGTIME MusicalFare Theatre/Daemen College
By Augustine Warner
“Ragtime” was a spectacle on the stage when I saw the pre-Broadway run in Toronto, an amazing show of singing and dancing and special effects, including Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s Model T, spread across a giant stage in what was then North York.
The story, the characters and the music survive on the MusicalFare stage.
In recent years, the company has learned to rethink a show so that it works on the relatively small stage using a small band, even having the characters play their own instruments.
It requires good casts, as well as production people who can make it work, even when the strong dancing of this production from choreographer Michael Walline doesn’t spill over into the seats.
Director Randall Kramer has it all.
This is a complicated backstory, novel by E.L Doctorow, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
It’s set in the very earliest years of the 20th Century, just a few years after the “separate but equal” provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v Ferguson.
Teddy Roosevelt’s in the White House and ragtime is in the clubs of the day, the first sign of the Black participation in the American musical spectrum which will turn popular music into a mélange of influences and interests, a fascinating story of geographic trivia because so much of this music flowed upriver from New Orleans’ Storyville.
It’s also a look at the massive immigration around the turn of the 20th Century, especially the Eastern European Jews like this show’s Tateh (Kyle Baran), who moves into the most visible new industry of the century, movies.
Still, in the control chair are Whites, especially the family central to this story, based in leafy New Rochelle.
This revolves around the romance between piano swinger Walker (Lorenzo Shawn Parnell) and Sarah (Dominique Kempf), who has just had his child, but she won’t marry him.
Mother and infant are essentially adopted by that rich White family in New Rochelle, served by a racist volunteer fire company.
Several of the volunteers, led by Chief Will Conklin (Adam Eckmaier) decide Walker is a little uppity and trash his car.
The legal system of the day denies Walker his due, reflecting the times.
That blows his mind and turns him into the early century’s terror crowd, here led by Emma Goldman (Charmagne Chi), and backed by a member of the family supporting Sarah and child.
This whole story required Doctoroff’s long, long novel to tell of the permutations of the plot.
While this is more than a century ago, it’s eerie to see the similarities, certainly about “Black Lives Matter.”
For younger people in the audience, some of the characters might not ring a bell, Goldman, Booker T. Washington (George L. Brown), Matthew Henson (Jake Hayes) and Evelyn Nesbit (Stevie Jackson), once the “girl in the red velvet swing” in a sensational Manhattan Murder, perhaps the first of “trials of the century.”
Music in the show shifts a bit over time, from “Opening” through “Getting’ Ready Rag” to the pre-World War I “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”
There are a number of strong production numbers, turned out by director Kramer and Walline, using a fairly large cast for numbers like “The Opening” to “The Night that Goldman Spoke” and “Look What You Have Done.”
More than anything else, this show requires a strong Coalhouse and Kramer has one here with Parnell, in numbers like “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker” and “Make Then Hear You,” to a duet with Kempf, “Sarah Brown Eyes.”
The only real quibble I have and it’s a small one is that the speakers toward the back of the seats tended to drown out some of the singing during the show and that’s with everybody in the cast miked.
Still, see “Ragtime.”
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