SpeakEasy's "Dogfight": Boy Rates Girl

Alejandra M. Parrilla & Jordan J. Ford in "Dogfight"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)

Sometimes when you least expect it, a piece of musical theater arrives on your doorstop for one magical night, makes you fall in love with it, and goes on its way to pursue a future you can't predict, while leaving behind an unforgettable memory of a brief but beautiful encounter.  The musical Dogfight is such an experience. Based on the 1991 film of the same name, it had its first limited run off-Broadway for two months in 2012, with subsequent mountings in London, Australia and around the U.S. It's now the final production of the current 25th season of SpeakEasy Stage Company. With Music and Lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Book by Peter Duchan, it won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Musical, with several nominations for other awards by the Outer Critics, Drama Desk and Drama League. (It also featured the talented Annaleigh Ashford, who would go on to win Tony Awards for Kinky Boots and You Can't Take It with You in subsequent Broadway seasons). It's a boy-rates-girl story that successfully stakes out terrain not often covered by theater, especially the musical kind. Its time frame precedes the era of political correctness, thereby turning a mirror on our innermost darker side as it courageously portrays a not-that-long-ago heated milieu drastically in need of some climate change.

It's 1967 and a marine named Eddie Birdlace (Jordan J. Ford) is on a bus to San Francisco, which triggers a flashback to his first arrival in the city four years prior, specifically the night before JFK was to be assassinated. Eddie was accompanied by his fellow marines, Boland (Jared Troilo) and Bernstein (Drew Arisco) who plan to spend their last night stateside playing a game called Dogfight. The winner will be the guy who brings the ugliest girl to a party (a true tradition for the Marines, we learn). In a diner, Birdlace finds a shy plain-looking waitress, Rose (Alejandra M. Parrilla), and invites her to be his date. After she accepts, he starts to have second thoughts, but they end up at the party where Rose learns the truth about the game from Boland's date Marcy (McCaela Donovan). Infuriated and hurt, she slaps Birdlace and leaves. Later, repentant, he asks her out again and she forgives him, allowing him to stay the night. The flashback ends and Birdlace, with harsh memories of the Vietnam war, seeks out an older and wiser Rose at the diner, as he sings “Take Me Back”.

That's about it, in a nutshell, yet there's so much more to be gleaned from this production. As Directed by Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with his usual gift for capturing the essence of a musical, aided by fine Music Direction by Jose Delgado and Choreography by Larry Sousa, it's a small but powerful gem. In the winning ensemble are a Lounge Singer (Patrick Varner, who also plays the parts of Pete, a drag queen, a diner patron, a waiter, and Big Tony), Stevens (Dylan James Whelan), Fector (Dave Heard), Mama as well as Suzette/Hippie (Liliane Klein), Gibbs as well as Steven's Party Date (Edward Rubenacker), and Ruth Two Bears as well as a Librarian, Chippy and Hippie (Jenna Lea Scott). Parrilla and Ford are entirely believable, with both effective acting and singing, and could hardly be improved upon as each grows, especially the unexpected strength of Parrilla's character. Donovan steals several scenes she's in, as does Varner. The technical team are all in fine form, from Scenic Designer Cristina Todesco's spare but versatile set, to Costume Designer Elisabetta Polito's spot-on attire reflecting the changes in the sixties, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg's well coordinated work and Sound Designer David Reiffel's contributed background. The score is pleasant and evocative of the times, if perhaps not as varied as it might have been.

Despite what might well be the least politically incorrect title around, Dogfight emerges as what can only be described with an often over-used term, yet exact here, truly bittersweet. Not unlike its heroine and hero, it's a wondrous way to spend an evening, even if we know more than they do about what history will do to them. This show will soon be a memory as well, so catch it while you can before it too disappears like the one-night stand it portrays. Seize the moment, as this will be sure to become one of your most emotionally moving and perhaps even life-changing theatrical experiences. It's a heartbreaking yet life-affirming musical treasure, like the encounter between the two leads, full of unexpected promise.


Nora Theatre's "Arcadia": Sin Tax?

Kira Patterson & Will Madden in "Arcadia"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair)
The title Et in Arcadia Ego appears to have been first used by the painter Guercino in 1622, with “Arcadia” meaning Paradise and the “Ego” referring to Death, thus perhaps meaning that death is undeniably everywhere. Used as a title for numerous works since, it was the initial title chosen by Tom Stoppard for his play that would ultimately be shortened to Arcadia. In 1993, it won London's Olivier Award as Best Play. In 1995, the Broadway version was nominated for both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and its revival in 2011 was a Tony nominee for Best Revival of a Play. It's now being mounted by Nora Theatre in Central Square in Cambridge. Consisting of thirteen characters (more, if you count a tortoise named Plautus in the nineteenth century, subsequently named Lightning in the present), more than half of the cast appear in the past (1809-1812), the rest in the present, in the same Derbyshire country house, Sidley Park. As with other Stoppard works, rare is there any trivial dialogue, so keen attention must be paid to even the simplest of red herrings of plotting. And, though sure to delight nearby MIT students, there is something ominous, so consider yourself forewarned: there will be math.

And math has consequences; but never fear. Though it delves superficially into such arcana as non-linear math, entropy, iterated algorithms, chaos theory, irregular “fractal” geometry, and the second law of thermodynamics (wait, there was a first one?), all is not lost. They are the product of an ever growing inquisitive mind of one Thomasina Coverly (Kira Patterson), a brilliant thirteen-year-old studying geometry, algebra and Latin with her twenty-two-year-old tutor Septimus Hodge (Will Madden) a friend of (the unseen) Lord Byron, staying at the house. Septimus wishes to concentrate on a work written by the terrible poet Ezra Chater (Alexander Platt), also currently a guest in the house. As will prove to be significant later in the play, Thomasina wants desperately to learn to waltz before her seventeenth birthday. She disproves some Newtonian laws of physics (e.g. time and heat each move in only one direction, and that not all equations are reversible, such as stirring jam into a pudding). As a joke, she draws a hermit on the landscape sketch of the formal garden that is to be made more romantic, even with a hermitage on site. Hodge posits that mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. Thomasina has learned that Chater's wife has been observed in “carnal embrace” with someone (who turns out to have been Septimus). Also on hand are Thomasina's brother Augustus (Max Jackson), her mother, and manager of the Coverly estate, Lady Croom (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), the landscape architect Richard Noakes (Harsh J. Gagoomal), Lady Croom's brother Captain Brice (Jesse Garlick), and the butler Jellaby (Elbert Joseph).

Two centuries or so later, historian Hanna Jarvis (Celeste Oliva) and literature professor Bernard Nightingale (Ross MacDonald) are trying to make sense of the happenings back in the nineteenth century in the house now occupied by postgraduate mathematical biology student Valentine Coverly (Matthew Zahnzinger), his sister Chloe (Jade Wheeler), and younger brother Gus (Jackson again). Hannah and Bernard each has contemporary mangled misinterpretations of the past and its evidence (which only we the audience can see through), the hilarious results of the unknowability of history vs. one's desire for knowledge. Hannah, in the garden digging up a book on hermits, sees Thomasina's drawing as the “only likeness of the hermit” extant, and Bernard incorrectly concludes that Lord Byron was forced to leave the country after he killed another in a duel (based on a book found in the poet's library). At the end of the play, all the characters, then and now, do a merry dance while the universe seems to grow cold, fulfilling Gus' prophecy that “we're all going to end up at room temperature”.

Stoppard is said to have based Thomasina on Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician whose theories anticipated the binary computer. Whether or not this is apocryphal, what is true is that just about everything in this play references another time, with scenes alternating between past and present until they finally warp and overlap, with past and modern characters on stage at the same time. In charge of keeping all these balls in the air is Director Lee Mikeska Gardner, the company's Artistic Director. It's a daunting task, and in less capable hands could have ended up, well, entropic. Fortunately, she and her stellar cast avoid the potential pitfalls of random disarray, somehow making sense of a very complicated and convoluted plot. Virtually all of then are marvelous, with special kudos to Patterson as a totally believable teen, MacDonald with his hilariously vitriolic zealotry, and Zahnzinger with his befuddled commentary. There is an over-the-top fop in Platt, but the part seems to have been written that way. Most strike a perfect balance between sobering social satire and performing with gusto. It makes for an exhausting but enthralling three hours. On the technical side, there is the exacting Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski, modestly impressive Scenic Design by Janie E. Howard, complicated Costume Design by Leslie Held and equally complex Sound Design by Nathan Leigh.

Thomasina alludes to the preeminence of sex (the physical vs. physics). Whatever your spot on the spectrum of opinion on this, Stoppard has a lot to offer you, if you don't allow the play's admittedly erudite and threateningly esoteric nature to undo you. It's unstoppable Stoppard, a master at the top of his game, as they say, having provided a brilliant play enacted here by an equally brilliant ensemble. It leaves us to ponder whether what might be called for is a sin tax on math.


BPW's "Unsafe": At Any Speed

This is a republished review of a performance at Cotuit Center for the Arts, which is now being performed through April 30th at Boston Center for the Arts.

Anna Botsford & Elliot Sicard in "Unsafe"
(photo: Jim Dalglish)

Whether they are in the fast lane or a bit more established, the characters in the play Unsafe share a commonality, namely that life post 9/11 is unsafe at any speed. This work by Jim Dalglish, a Boston Public Works' co-production with Cotuit Center for the Arts, is now being presented at the Plaza Theater at Boston Center for the Arts April 15-30. A semifinalist at the 2008 National Playwright's Conference, it's quite accurately described in the program as a psychological thriller. As such, and as is the case with many mysteries, it presents a challenge for any reviewer: how to critique a work that fundamentally depends on the playwright's gradual revealing of pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in which these characters find themselves. By and large, the play succeeds at this process, but describing precisely how it does so would be to ruin a theatergoer's appreciation of the many revelations without spoiling one's experience with, well, spoilers. The tagline for the show, “be careful who you let inside”, while grammatically questionable, can also serve as a caveat for reviewing any play in which so much information is initially withheld: be careful whom you let in on your plot points. That said, there's enough to share to whet one's appetite for such an intriguing work.

In 2003 New York, a family is attempting to pick up the pieces of their lives (for some, almost literally) in the midst of a midwinter New York City blizzard with three feet of snow. It's the occasion of the fortieth birthday of Lisa (Anna Botsford), with her parents Yvonne (Michelle Pelletier) and Guy (H. Kempton Parker) in attendance, along with, curiously, Nathaniel (Tony Travostino), a neurologist who has been studying a disorder afflicting Lisa's daughter Georgie (at the opening performance, Alexandra Tsourides, alternating thereafter with her sister Natalia). It's a rare condition known as Williams Syndrome, occurring with missing chromosomal information, simultaneously resulting in health problems and exceptional verbal and musical precocity. The festivities are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Will (Elliot Sicard), whose relationship to the family is initially unclear. As the play progresses, there are several surprises that clarify not only the issues currently on hand, but the historical reasons why these family members are so deeply wounded as a result of the iconic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, especially with the still extant fallout from that tragedy. It has resulted in a pervasive feeling of life as unsafe; as the playwright puts it, “the terror, the pain, the fear that it feeds on...it's here”.

Before the first word of dialogue is spoken, while theatergoers are finding their seats, we're presented with a group of characters referred to as the “Wild Boys” (Chris Crider, Peter G. Lemire, Ian Morris, Lang Haynes, Nicholas Stewart, and Nick Bucchianeri) who hover and mime menacingly, none of them losing character throughout the course of the show. It's part of an overall unity of concept reflected in the imaginative Scenic Design of a loft apartment by Tristan DiVincenzo (especially an increasingly ominous elevator), as well as the varied Costume Design by Greta Bieg (right down to the holes in Will's socks), effective Lighting Design by Greg Hamm and Sound Design and Musical Composition by Nathan Leigh. How these “Wild Boys” and the creative team's efforts contribute to the effect of the play are also potential spoilers. Suffice it to say that the aforementioned elevator in the renovated complex that Lisa and her daughter continue to inhabit plays a role in establishing a sense of dread. Even the scene changes are handled ingeniously.
As it stands now, this is a taut, engrossing work by a clever playwright who also happens to be the director of the current production. The insight into the underbelly of the play is thus undoubtedly a plus, though it may have resulted in some ambiguity, particularly in the first part of the final scene, where it's unclear that six months have passed and whom the characters in the scene are mourning. That said, it would be an easy fix, eliminating some confusion on the part of the audience as to when and where we are as the play winds down to its devastating climax. There are a few bits of dialogue that sound out of character, such as Will's description of people either as simple as a single cartoon panel or as complex as a five-hundred-page novel. For the most part, though, Dalglish has a great ear for his multifaceted cast, most of whom don't disappoint. Botsford (tightly wound and increasingly unraveling) and Sicard (with his expressively labile face) are very impressive, each with an opportunity to deliver an aria-like turn, and Tsourides is amazingly believable for such a young performer. Not since “The Miracle Worker” has a play depended so profoundly on the skill of a child actor. There were some problems with projection and diction on the part of some of the rest of the cast, but these will probably be resolved with more familiarity with the material.
At a crucial point in the dramatic arc of the play, Lisa explains that one of the reasons she remains in her building and cannot leave yet is that it too is “one of the pieces” of the aftermath of tragedy. Dalglish has pulled off a remarkable feat, taking something we all feel we've survived and assimilated, and making the ultimate reveal, namely that we have all been forever changed and, denial aside, we now must be wary, vigilant and, if not precisely unsafe, at least unsettled. This playwright saw something, and said something.



Fathom Events' Met Opera "Roberto Devereux": Regal Queen

Sondra Radvanovsky in "Roberto Devereux"
(photo: Met Opera)

Opera buffs are often a tough audience to please, but an opportunity to appreciate all three of composer Donizetti's “Triple Crown” operas in a single season with a supremely talented soprano is enough to send the most demanding fan into paroxysms of delight. Such was the case as the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of Donizetti's Roberto Devereux featured operas by the composer about fabled English queens, begun in September with Anna Bolena and continued in January with Maria Stuarda. All of them starred the wondrous Sondra Radnvanovsky. This last opera in the trio, Roberto Devereux, also brought us a whole team of singing actors to die for. But since this is not a frequently performed work, a synopsis might first be in order.

In 1601 in London, Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (mezzo Elina Garanca), is crying about the fact that she is in love with Roberto Devereux (tenor Matthew Polenzani). Queen Elizabeth (Radvanovsky) enters and tells her she is going to receive Devereux, who has returned from Ireland accused of treason, but she plans to pardon him if he still loves her, though Lord Cecil (tenor Brian Downen) wants her to sign his death warrant. When Roberto enters, she becomes suspicious at his remoteness, though he denies love for another. Furious, Elizabeth is convinced of his betrayal. Sarah's husband, the Duke of Nottingham (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien) arrives to greet him (they are the closest of friends), worried about his safety. Cecil convenes a council meeting to decide Robert’s fate, and Nottingham vows to defend him. Meanwhile Robert reproaches Sarah for marrying while he was away; she replies that she was ordered to do so by Elizabeth. She begs him to escape, giving him a scarf she has made. He departs. Later, Cecil tells Elizabeth that Roberto was given a death sentence. She orders Sir Walter Raleigh (tenor Christopher Job) to arrest Roberto, who is found to have the scarf given him by Sarah. Nottingham defends his beloved friend but she won't relent, and confronts Roberto with the scarf. Nottingham is first shocked, then furious. Roberto refuses to reveal who gave it to him, so Elizabeth signs his death warrant. Sarah receives a letter from Roberto asking her to take the ring to Elizabeth and plead for mercy, but Nottingham arrives, reads it and orders her confined. In the Tower, Roberto hopes to clear her name, but soldiers come to take him to his execution. Meanwhile the queen notices the absence of Sarah, who runs in with her ring confessing she was her rival. The queen orders the execution stopped, but it is too late, as a cannon shot announces Roberto’s death. Elizabeth turns on Nottingham and Sarah, demanding to know why they didn’t bring her the ring sooner. He proudly replies her that all he had wanted was revenge. Ordering them both taken away, she is haunted by a vision of Roberto, and now only longs to be free of her role as queen.

The Production and Set Design by David McVicar was stunning (though it grew wearisome after three hours), as was the regal Costume Design by Moritz Junge, effective Lighting Design by Paule Constable and exciting chorale work under Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The HD Broadcast Director was Mark Halvorson and the charming HD Host was Deborah Voight. But it was the terrifically acted singing that made the most indelible impression, beginning with Radvanovsky herself, in perhaps the most suitable role for her among the three queens, matched by the lyricism of both Polenzani and Kwiecien (both so memorable in this season's Pearl Fishers) and by the beauty of Garanca's vocalizing. It was truly an embarrassment of riches, rather like a display of aural crown jewels.

Fittingly, this enthralling performance of the most royal queen of all was broadcast locally (and will encore next Wednesday April 20 at 6:30pm) at Regal Cinemas.


Cotuit Center/CCCC's "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater": Uncultured Pearls?

"God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater"
(Poster Design by Margaret Cahill)

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, a musical co-production by Cape Cod Community College (at its Tilden Arts Center) and the Cotuit Center for the Arts, is based on the 1965 Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name (without the book's subtitle Pearls before Swine). First produced in 1979, this was the initial collaboration of a team that would go on to success in numerous Disney films and stage adaptations, with the Book and Lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and Music by Alan Menken. It had a very brief life off-Broadway, and has pretty much been ignored since, though it's due to have a five-performance concert run as part of the New York City Centre's Encore! Off-Center series this July. As a very early work by Ashman and Menken, it's also a relatively uncultured one, but it does have a few pearls to offer. This production is the New England premiere of the piece. Since the work is so obscure, a bit of synopsis is called for; given its complex storyline, that's a bit of a challenge.

As the Vonnegut novel puts it, in his typically sardonic wit, with its very first sentence: “A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.” In this play, the sum of over eighty million dollars is announced by a heavenly voice. A young lawyer, Norman Mushari (Dominic Fucile) notes this is the fortune of the Rosewater family that prospers within their own Foundation, and that the rules call for immediate expulsion of any officer deemed to be insane. Meanwhile, Eliot Rosewater (Andrew Nesom), President of the Foundation, discusses his recent psychiatry appointment with his wife Sylvia (Rachel Hatfield). He's got a drinking problem and some PTSD-like symptoms, having mistakenly slain a teenage noncombatant in war (his doctor's prognosis: “untreatable”). At a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, Eliot yells out that the characters on stage should save their oxygen (it's the tomb scene from Aida). Subsequently, he goes into hiding. Sylvia goes to see Eliot's father, Senator Rosewater (Norbert Brown) to confer about Eliot's letter sent to her from Elsinore California, as though she were Ophelia and he were Hamlet. Later, at various volunteer firehouse brigades, he warns of the combustibility of oxygen and is dragged off stage at a science fiction convention raving about the author Kilgore Trout (Raven Clarke). Eliot travels to Rosewater, Indiana, where he intends to set up a branch of the Foundation to help the citizenry, who are poor, illiterate, depressed and forever pregnant, with two phone lines (a red one for fire reports, a black one for just talking). Sylvia joins him and whips up some snazzy fare that the locals resist in preference to cheese nips; she has a breakdown and is sent to a mental hospital, then advised to take a trip abroad. The Indiana locals cheer Eliot and the changes his philanthropy has brought them.

Meanwhile, Mushari visits the Rosewater kin in Rhode Island, Fred (Chris Kassarjian) and Caroline (Emily Tullock), telling them they are being swindled out of a fortune. When Sylvia returns from her vacation, she asks Eliot for a divorce. The Senator demands that Eliot return, and he agrees, though insisting his return will be by bus. Eliot tells the bus driver to stop, and ends up in a mental hospital himself. (Obviously, once Eliot planned to use the Rosewater Foundation actually to help people, he must have been insane, right?). To prove him insane, Mushari had stated that some fifty-seven women claimed Eliot as the father of their children. The suit is dropped when Eliot proudly proclaims his love for all his “children” and makes them all his heirs, diluting the suit by Fred and Caroline.

There's quite a bit more plotting than that, but let this summary suffice. (Though of local interest is the Cotuit connection, where Eliot grew up and his mother died in a 1937 sailing accident, or Kilgore Trout's Hyannis connection working in a stamp redemption store there). The humor, most of it direct from Vonnegut's novel, is quite timely given the current political campaigns. The score (with numbers such as “The Rosewater Foundation”, the “I, Eliot Rosewater” finale, and Hatfield's comedic rendition of “Cheese Nips”) has irony aplenty, but not up to the standards that Ashman and Menken eventually set. (The program notes that there were additional lyrics provided by Dennis Green for two songs). This production had several high points, including Julie Ellis-Clayton's delivery and Raven Clarke's appearance as Trout. The show is Directed here by Vana Trudeau, with Choreography by Michelle Colley and Andrea Lockhart, Music Direction by Lisa Goodwin-Taylor, Scenic Design by Lauren Duffy, Lighting Design by Kendra Murphy, Costume Design by Greta Bieg, and Sound Design by John Bishop. The cast also includes Gioia Sabatinelli, Sean Whalen, Meghan Allard, April Crowley, Dan Svirsky, Taylor Guildford, Mary Cirpriani-Pratt, Emily Entwisle, Amie McFarlane, Adam Harris and the standout versatility of Tyler Burke.

This is a unusual opportunity to see a rarely performed early work by two masters in their field as they began to develop the skills that would later make them so incredibly successful, with Tonys and Oscars in their future. Fortunately for theatergoers, they would follow the advice given in Vonnegut's last words on the subject: “tell them to be fruitful and multiply”.


Lyric Stage's "Mr. Burns": Radio-inactivity

The Cast of "Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Once upon a time, in a galaxy not far away, there was a play entitled Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn, now being presented by Lyric Stage Company. With Music by Michael Friedman, and Directed by A. Nora Long, it centers around an episode of the television series The Simpsons known to its fans as “the Cape Feare episode”. The play concerns the nature of storytelling, with several film and musical references, for three acts, in a post apocalyptic world.

The first act takes place in semi-darkness (since electricity has been lost), making it difficult to appreciate any of the cast's facial expressions as they sit around the equivalent of a campfire in “the very near future”. They repeatedly attempt to reconstruct lines and incidents from the television episode based on the 1962 film Cape Fear (remade in 1991), complete with repeated renditions of the eerie four notes from the score (wah, wah, wah, wah). Their dialogue consists of seemingly endless blah, blah, blah, blah. The second act becomes a very meta story-within-a-story about the survivors seven years later and their making of a commercial, and the issue of memories and how they are reduced to paying for them, again with ceaseless repetition. The third act amounts to a virtual through-composed opera, referencing several repetitious pop songs (Ricky Martin's La Vida Loca, the theme song from The Flintstones, and some Gilbert and Sullivan numbers from The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore) . Unfortunately, the faces of the cast are again masked, this time literally. And note the repetition of the word “repetitious” throughout this assessment.

This play is the victim of theatrical brownout, full of post-eclectic eccentricity and signifying not very much. Any attempt to satirize what is already itself a satire risks being redundant and, when it concerns a cartoon, overly simple. Despite the valiant efforts of cast and creatives, the fault remains in the material, essentially a one-joke effort. For the record, the hard-working cast includes Jordan Clark, Aimee Doherty, Brandon G. Green, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Joseph Marrella, Lindsey McWhorter and Nael Nacer, all of whom perform the sophomoric material as best they can. The creative work by Music Director Allyssa Jones, Choreographer Yo-El Cassell, Scenic Designer Shelley Barish, Costume Designer Amanda Mujica, Lighting Designer Wen-Ling Liao and Sound Designer Sam Hanson is up to their typical standard, especially the Mask Design and Construction by Lauren Duffy.

Fans of The Simpsons may find this satire of interest. Those who are decidedly not fans, as well as those who are totally unfamiliar with the series, might prefer to look forward to Lyric Stage's next promising production of Peter and the Starcatcher.


PPAC's "Ragtime": Melting Plot

The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: PPAC)

Adapting a huge and sprawling book for the stage is always a daunting task, rife with challenges. Ragtime, the 1998 musical, winner of Tony Awards for its Book by Terrance McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and original Orchestrations by William David Brohn, was such an adaptation, based on the popular 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, made into a popular film in 1981. In this musicalized version, it's the score that primarily makes the show as wondrous as it is, including cakewalks, gospel, marches and, of course, ragtime. Scott Joplin would have been proud, as the music itself proudly proclaims the greatness of America as the great melting pot, covering the stories of three representative families. In this touring company, now at Providence Performing Arts Center, with Direction and Choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, there is much to enjoy and applaud, despite those inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters. This is a superb rendition of this deservedly acclaimed piece of theater.

As those familiar with the novel and film version will recall, those three families portrayed (beginning in 1902) have eventual interlocking stories, each with a strong central character. There is the tale of the black Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker (Chris Sams) and his lover Sarah (Leslie Jackson), who gives birth to their baby. Then there is the upper class white suburban family from New Rochelle consisting of characters known only as Father (Troy Bruchwalski), Grandfather (Bob Marcus), Mother's Younger Brother (Donald Coggin), Little Boy (Colin Myers, alternating with Jordan Santiago) and its central figure, Mother (Kate Turner). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Matthew Curiano) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as Little Girl (Cara Myers, alternating with Leilani Santiago). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Admiral Peary (Todd Berkich), Harry Houdini (Mark Alpert), Evelyn Nesbit (Jillian Van Niel), Booker T. Washington (Jeffrey Johnson II), Emma Goldman (Sandy Zwier), Henry Ford (John Anker Bow) and J. P. Morgan (Berkich again), as well as some fictional roles such as Sarah's friend (Aneesa Folds), and the head of a local fire brigade Willie Conklin (Joe Callahan). Three local actors (Tray Abercrombie, Gabriel Johnson and Aiden Graham) are alternating in the role of Young Coalhouse.

Even a cursory glance at the cast's size and variety, obviously heavy with historical figures, gives a clue to its being overpopulated with so many characters to absorb or get to know, and many of them are only tangential to any of the three main stories. Nonetheless there are several songs that feature some of these minor roles, sometimes distracting and detracting from the heart of the tales. There are some rousing songs (“Wheels of a Dream”, “Till We Reach That Day” and especially the haunting “New Music”), but also some insignificant ones. As is the case with many a musical based on a novel, (for example, the original “Color Purple” before its recent transforming condensation), one's involvement with fundamental themes is diluted. There is also the issue of highly improbable coincidences that interconnect the stories which won't be divulged here. Despite these issues, the score carries the day, making for a truly memorable theatrical experience. The opening number alone is worth the price of admission, surely one of musical theater's greatest, right up there with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as an introductory masterpiece of stagecraft. But there are also more than a few clever yet subtle touches, such as Father betraying his bigotry by not shaking hands with a black seaman and not singing later in the ensemble number that hails equality, or Tateh gradually losing his tallis along with his Jewish identity.

The standout performers include Jackson, whose voice makes you wish Sarah was a larger role, Sams, whose voice is equally impressive (best in his high range), and Turner, whose acting is pivotal to the believability of the show . The creative elements, from the Scenic Design by Kevin Depinet, to the Sound Design by Craig Cassidy (which needs some adjusting), Lighting Design by Nike Baldassari, Projection Design (with some great silhouette effects) by Mike Tutaj, and Costume Design by Gail Baldoni, are all professional. The sets are somewhat streamlined for this tour, but this actually enhances the work with more focus on the players.

This time around, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with riches.