8/05/2017

Ogunquit's "Ragtime": Ever the Melting Plot

The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Ogunquit Playhouse)

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 Terrence 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, which had been made into an equally 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 (winning Tonys for score and orchestrations over Lion King no less). 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 company, with Direction by Seth Skylar-Heyn and Choreography by Jesse Robb, there is much to enjoy and applaud, despite those inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters into this overstuffed melting plot. 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 (Darnell Abraham) and his lover Sarah (Lindsay Roberts), 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 (Jamie Laverdiere), Grandfather (David Studwell), Mother's Younger Brother (Julian Decker), and its central figure, Mother (Kirsten Scott), as well as The Little Boy, Edgar (Tyler Wladis, alternating with Sol Thomas). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Josh Young) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as The Little Girl (Ella Luke-Tedeschi, alternating with Ella Riley). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Admiral Peary (Joel Robertson), Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel), Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Amburn), Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton), Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst), Henry Ford (Jack Doyle), Stanford White (Sam Hartley) and J. P. Morgan (Joel Robertson), as well as some fictional roles such as Sarah's friend (Galyana Castillo), the head of a local fire brigade Willie Conklin (Joey Elrose) and Kathleen (Mary Malaney).


Josh Young (Tateh) & Ella Luke-Tedeschi (Little Girl) in "Ragtime"
(photo: Ogunquit Playhouse)

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, at about ten minutes, 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 Roberts, whose voice makes you wish Sarah was a larger role, the powerful Abraham, whose acting is pivotal to the believability of the show, the gradual emergence of Scott and Young, and Wladis, a scene stealer if there ever was one. The creative elements, from the fluid Scenic Design by Tim Mackabee (including an amazing Model T), to the Sound Design by Kevin Heard, Lighting Design by Richard Latta, Music Direction by Jeffrey Campos, and the original Broadway Costume Design by Santo Loquasto, are all professional.

As the audience took their seats, they were confronted not with a curtain but with the majestic sight of the face of the Statue of Liberty, hinting at the poignancy to come, especially given today's attitudes toward immigrants and minorities. A show that treats the issues of poverty and wealth, justice and freedom, and hope and despair, and does so with such strength, is even more pertinent in these troubling days. This time around, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with riches, summed up in the words to the title number that opens the show:

The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb...
It was the music:
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it ragtime...Ragtime!


8/03/2017

Goodspeed's "Oklahoma!": Fresh off the Cob

Rhett Guter (as Curly) & The Cast of "Oklahoma!"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Oh, what a beautiful musical. When the ground-breaking show Oklahoma! burst onto the theatrical scene back in 1943, it easily earned its exclamation point. This was largeIy due to its evolving status as what would come to be called the “book musical” (with a nod to “Showboat”) as well as its amazing novel integration of song and dance numbers into the plot. Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, it would run for 2212 performances on Broadway. Revolutionary as it was in form, the plot reflected the undeniable fact that it was a far simpler time, when the crux of a libretto could be the question of whose homemade apple jelly and gooseberry tarts for the Box Social got auctioned by whom, and so went the story in the 1955 film version. More recent theatrical productions have re-emphasized its darker elements, notably the role of Jud Fry, and restored his song Lonely Room, right after the lighter comic Poor Jud number. It was the product of its times in other respects, such as its tinges of female inferiority and even some racial undertones (the portrayal of the peddler Ali Hakim, and a reference to the ragtime dance seen being performed by “some colored fellers”, cut in this verson). Yet despite these historical negative notes, it endures, primarily due to its lovely score and unabashedly optimistic central tale. It comes as a surprise that the show has never before been produced at Goodspeed Musicals, an oversight that is currently being corrected by a superb cast and crew. It's corn, but superbly fresh off the cob.


The Cast of "Oklahoma!"
(photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Directed by Jenn Thompson, with Choreography by Katie Spelman (based on the original Agnes de Mille routines), this one is a winner. It remains the story of handsome cowhand Curly (Rhett Guter) and local lovely Laurey (Samantha Bruce), supported by her Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), and the subplot involving farm hand Will Parker (Jake Swain) and his main squeeze, Ado Annie (Gizel Jimenez), with some humor interjected by Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) and menace by Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) as well as complications with Ado Annie's “Paw” Andrew Carnes (C. Mingo Long). All are wonderful, with standouts Guter, Bruce and especially Faucher. The creative elements are all up to Goodspeed's renowned level of professionalism, from the Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, to the Costume Design by Tracey Christensen, the Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg, the Sound Design by Jay Hilton, the Orchestration by Dan DeLange and Music Direction by Michael O'Flaherty.

From the moment the first strains of Curly's Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' are heard from offstage, the score continues to enchant, with such songs as People Will Say We're in Love, Out of My Dreams, Many a New Day, and the title number, exclamation point and all. Then there are the less elegiac but humorous The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, Kansas City, I Cain't Say No, The Farmer and the Cowman, and All er Nuthin', which add up to a baker's dozen of memorable hits. It's easy to see why it hasn't lost its popularity even though its plot points are less pointed than they once seemed.
 
Yet it speaks to the universality and endurance of the perpetually popular and prevailing cowboy-meets-farmgirl theme that this show still captures our hearts and moves our souls. Perhaps it's a testimony that, no matter how profane our politics might become, there remain some very basic and fundamental truths and aspirations that most of us continue to embrace against all odds. In the mythical world of Curly and Laurey, which one should be urged to revisit, though the corn is still as high as an elephant's eye, it's cobbled together into a true testament to how happy endings are still possible, fences are for mending and not dividing us, and the world can be less of a cynical swamp and more of a bright golden haze on a meadow.