Sunday, February 16, 2003

Ragtime (Cassidy Theatre)

"RAGTIME' at Cassidy--the first national non-professional production

On January 18, 1998 ‘RAGTIME’ opened on Broadway. Stephen Flaherty, who wrote the music for the show, gave his writing partner, Lynn Ahrens a notebook containing the original song sketches and notations from the show. It is inscribed: “Ragtime is about America in transition, constantly bending, blending, adapting.” It is that, and so much more.

‘RAGTIME’ ranks with the great shows of musical theatre. It has been called “A brilliant work of musical storytelling, ”a near masterpiece,” and “one of those rare musicals that can be mentioned in the same breath as ‘SHOW BOAT,’ ‘PORGY AND BESS,’ and ‘FIDDLER ON THE ROOF’.”

The story intertwines the lives of a Black American family, victims of brutal racism; a recently arrived Jewish father and daughter, impoverished, despairing; and an old New York family steeped in Victorianism. The play starts with our exposure to the characters.

It is New Rochelle, New York in 1906. There is a large Victorian house, the home of an upper middle class family. It is the home of Father, who has derived his wealth from the manufacture of fireworks, flags and bunting; Mother; their young son and Mother's brother, a genius at explosives who works in Father's fireworks factory.

In Harlem, crowds dance to the music of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr..

America is filled with famous characters: escape artist Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, the wealthiest man in America, the radical anarchist Emma Goldman, and the chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit.

Tateh and his daughter arrive at Ellis Island, as part of the 1.2 million immigrants who flee from Europe.

As the families interact we are carried through an examination of the history of the era and the biases and prejudices of the population. This is told with a well-integrated story and wonderful music. Outstanding musical numbers are “YourDaddy’s Son,” “New Music,” “Heels of a Dream,” and the wonderous “Make Them Hear You.”

‘RAGTIME’ is a difficult show for any group to perform. For an amateur theatre it is a real stretch. The show requires a huge cast, a massive number of costumes, and a many scene set. The music is complicated.

Cassidy Theatre’s production, under the direction of David Jecman, is a credable amateur outing. Musical Director John D. Roberts has done an excellent job of bringing out the best in the cast’s voices. His orchestra is generally good but there are problems in the brass section and the underscoring is often too loud, thus drowning out some of the spoken lines. Choreographer Larry Braun has developed dances appropriate to the level of his performers. Scenic designer Mark Kobak has created a very functional set. Lester Currie’s costumes are excellent, but having Tateh wear a prayer shawl as a scarf was questionable. The lighting design was problematic. Many times performers were in the dark and light cues were sometimes late.

Geoffrey Short, as Coalhouse Walker Jr., and Trinidad Rosado, as his girlfriend, are each astounding. They both have outstanding voices, excellent acting skills and develop and keep their characters throughout. It’s worth attending this production just to see them light up the stage.

Beth O. Cubbison is fine as Mother. She has a lovely voice and wraps herself around the character. Michael Snider displays a wonderful singing voice as Mother’s brother. Noreen Lehmann develops a clear character as Emma Goldman.

Capsule judgement: ‘RAGTIME’ is a difficult show for any group to perform. For an amateur theatre it is a real stretch. The Cassidy production, under the direction of David Jecman, is a credable amateur outing.
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