By Beki Pineda
RAGTIME. Book by Terrance McNally; music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; directed and choreographed by Kelly Van Oosbree. Co-produced by Performance Now Theatre Company and the Lakewood Cultural Center (performing at LCC, 470 South Allison Parkway, Lakewood) through April 10. Tickets available at 303-987-7845 or www.lakewood.org. Get them before they sell out!
Three of the best theaters in the region have chosen to perform RAGTIME: the Arvada Center; BDT Stage (where it so moved the cast that at their last performance of some of the music at the Henry Awards ceremony that year, everyone onstage was in tears); and now the current production at the Lakewood Cultural Center by the talented crew of Performance Now. If you accidentally (I know you wouldn’t on purpose) missed one of the first two productions, for Pete’s sake get yourself over to LCC for this brilliant production. Director Kelly Van Oosbree is gifted at creating stage pictures that simultaneously please the eye and tell the story. She finds dancers who can cakewalk, march and waltz. She finds singers who can belt out a show tune, break your heart with a ballad, and delight with a syncopated melody. Then she melds them all together with an amazing story and score into a production that touches your heart.
Based on E. L. Doctorow’s book of the same name, RAGTIME covers historical true events of the first two decades of the 20th century through the device of following the changes wrought on three fictional characters. The first is Mother, a well-to-do suburban matron in New Rochelle, N.Y., who leads a domestic-centered life with Father, who built a fortune from fireworks and can afford to take a year off to travel with Admiral Peary’s North Pole expedition. Mother longs for adventures of her own and ultimately finds them in her own backyard. The second fictional character is Tateh, an immigrant from Latvia who has come to America to provide a better life for his daughter. Bringing nothing with him but his skill at cutting silhouettes from paper, he finds that the success he longed for eludes him.
The third fictional representative is Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime piano player whose demand for justice creates a situation that provides the turning point of the story. Three generations away from slavery and newly rich, Coalhouse is loosely based on both Scott Joplin, the father of the title musical form, and a 16th-century rebel named Michael Kohlhase. That “Coalhouse” also sought reparation for unjust treatment, could not get it through official channels, raised a group of followers and stormed the town of his oppressor. In the original story, Martin Luther tried to intervene; in the musical, Booker T. Washington is called upon to mediate.
The great melting-pot effect of these times allows all three to come together in unexpected ways that reflect the changing times. New understandings are born; unexpected friendships are forged; old prejudices are broken. Sprinkled throughout the created stories are episodes involving true historical figures. Evelyn Nesbit, the famed Girl on the Red Velvet Swing, tells her tale of infidelity and murder. Harry Houdini performs one of his great escapes. Industrialist J. P. Morgan shows up; manufacturer Henry Ford demonstrates his methods of building cars for the masses; and Emma Goldman, outspoken socialist, provides a narrative for the working class.
While the production has a overlay of change and passion for causes, there are also moments of humor and frivolity. “Getting Ready Rag” helps Coalhouse prepare to call on Sarah, his estranged love. Later, in an attempt at parental bonding, Father takes his son to a baseball game. Expecting the gentlemanly game he played in college, he is appalled at the behavior of the rowdy crowd seated around them in “What a Game.” Tateh, now a successful movie maker, explains to Mother how that came to be in “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.”
But these are not what you will remember. You will remember the sweet ballads shared by Coalhouse and Sarah—”Sarah Brown Eyes,” “Wheels of a Dream” and “New Music.” Sarah’s mournful song to her baby son, “Your Daddy’s Son,” will leave a mark on your heart. Powerful anthems like “Till We Reach That Day” and “Make Them Hear You” resonate and reflect today’s racial politics as easily as those from the 1920s.
This is a creative and compelling ensemble cast that easily slips in and out of a variety of roles in support of the story. Due must, however, be given to the main characters who move the story forward to its inspiring conclusion. Lindsey Falduto’s voice is without peer; she epitomizes the stately grace of an entitled woman while revealing her vulnerability. Daniel Langhoff moves with ease from the role of Younger Brother in the Arvada production to Tateh in this. He too brings an innocence to the early Tateh that provides a powerful contrast to his more successful and confident “Baron Ashkenazy,” the name he adopts as a film producer. Coalhouse is brought to life by Justin Spann, whose physical presence and determination make him a force to reckon with. Krisangela Washington sings a beautiful Sarah. Alisa Metcalf is a saucy and appealing Evelyn Nesbit, and Andrew Bates pulls off Harry Houdini’s impressive escape trick without breaking a sweat.
The design team continued the PNTC tradition of stark and simple production techniques that allow for the smooth flow of scenes and storytelling. Cindy Franke’s costuming both reflected the era and allowed the clear delineation between classes. The orchestra under the direction of Eric Weinstein kept the difficult score under control and provided the underpinning for dramatic events. All in all, another brilliant co-production for PNTC and Lakewood Cultural Center.
WOW factor: 9.5