Sunday, October 31, 2004

Ragtime (Jewish Community Center)

‘RAGTIME’ hits right tune at JCC

‘RAGTIME, THE MUSICAL’ is an awesome undertaking. It
can’t be done for full effect without a heavy investment in costumes, sets and special effects. It requires a huge and talented cast. But, most importantly, it takes a director who has the insight, creativity and ability to blend all these elements together. Fortunately for the newly revived Jewish Community Center’s theatre program, their production of ‘RAGTIME’ has the talented cast, the expert technicians, and a quality director in the person of Fred Sternfeld.

‘RAGTIME’ is set in the early 1900s during the era of vast social changes. It was an era, much like ragtime did for music, that transformed the United States into a new country.

The play, based on the epic book “RAGTIME’ by E. L. Doctorow, chronicles the lifestyles of those blessed and not-so-blessed by weaving together the fictional stories of Coalhouse Walker, an educated African-American musician and Sarah, the love of his life; Tateh and his young daughter, Jewish immigrants seeking opportunity in America; and an upper-class
family clinging to the “good life” in the affluent and peaceful community of New Rochelle, New York. Further woven into the plot are real historical characters in the personages of Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman.

The show was billed, on its New York opening as: “The number one theatrical event of the year.” Other comments included, “A brilliant work of musical storytelling, social comment that marks a glorious culmination for the American musical at the end of its first century.” Further, it was called “A powerful liberal statement at a moment when such statements are rare.” It was also declared that “’RAGTIME’ is one of those rare musicals that can be mentioned in the same

I’m not an easy sell, but I echo those reviews. I consider ‘RAGTIME’ to be one of the top ten musicals ever written.

With that said, I go into productions of the show with great fears. With the daunting production requirements, this is a musical, no matter the brilliance of the script and musical score, that can crash and burn with ease.

My fears evaporated early into the JCC‘s production, which is being staged in the theatre at Cuyahoga County Community College-Eastern Campus. It became apparent from the inspiring opening scene that Sternfeld had put the whole thing together with style and skill. Each person on stage was sure of what to do and how to do it. The chorus vocal blends were wonderful. Martin Cespedes’ choreography perfectly fit the multi-musical moods underscored by the ragtime sound. The costumes transport us back to the turn of century. And, in spite of the fact that the music was sometimes so loud it drowned out the spoken and sung words of the cast, the sound-feel was right.

Before us unfolded a large Victorian house in New Rochelle, New York. There is Harlem, with crowds dancing to the music of ragtime. There is a “rag ship” with a Lithuanian widower named Tateh (father) with his dreams of escaping with his daughter to America to be part of the “golden medina”—the country where the streets are paved with gold.

And as the play developed, the visual images continued to be crystal clear through both the development of the script and the interpretation of the music, music that carries us through the high and lows of the story. Songs like “Crime of the Century,” which tells of a murder which gained of nation-wide attention; “Goodbye, My Love” in which Mother bids farewell to Father who is joining Admiral Perry on an expedition to the North Pole; “Journey On” which gives
us our exposition to Tateh and the Little Girl as they enter America; and, “Getting Ready Rag” which introduces us to Coalhouse Walker, Jr.

Highlight production numbers include: “The Tempo Club in Harlem” with has some electrifying dancing, “Henry Ford’s Auto Factory” in which humans become cogs in the machinery for producing the Model T, “Courtship” a well-staged composite singing number, and “What a Game” which was an obvious audience favorite.

The JCC cast is generally excellent. Kyle Primous makes Coalhouse a living symbol. His version of “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” was powerful. His dance numbers were equally good. Maggie Stahl Wirfel brought understanding and compassion to the role of Mother. She has a fine singing voice which was well showcased in “Goodbye, My Love,” “Back to Before” and
“What Kind of Woman.” “Our Children,” her duet with Marc Moritz (Tatah) was beautifully tender. Moritz’s Tatah was fine, except for the distracting accent which seemed inappropriate and kept coming and going.

Sean Szaller as Younger Brother perfectly captured the mood of the young man caught between his liberal ideals and WASP upbringing. As with all the cast, he displayed a fine singing voice which was used effectively in his segments of “He Wanted To Say.” Amiee Collier (Emma Goldman) and Primous helped make that song one of the emotional highlights of the evening.

Chris McCarrell (The Little Boy) and Emma Wahl (The Little Girl) both showed stage awareness beyond their youth. (Emma will leave shortly for NYC to join the original cast of the soon to open ‘CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.’)

Yolanda Christine Davis (Sarah) has a beautiful voice but her facial expressions while she sung were sometimes distracting, creating looks of anguish rather than happiness. Kristin Netzband was not seductive and playful enough as Evelyn Nesbitt.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As a line from the show says, “And we will ride on the wheels of a dream.” My recommendation: Go see this dream of a production!