Ragtime: An effective production!

Reviewed by James Murchison

I went to see Ragtime at the Centrepointe theatre. The darkness of
evening had not yet fallen and it was gloriously free from the
incessant rain that we have all become so accustomed to. It was a
glorious greaat evening to go to the theatre.
The story of Ragtime is as familiar as time. There are the wealthy
people of New Rochelle who never need worry about anything and
are blissfully unaware of the strife that besets most of the nation.
There are the new Eastern European immigrants struggling to start
a life in America fully believing the myth that everyone has an
equal path to prosperity and happiness. Then there is spirit of the
freewheeling ease of the black clubs of Harlem.

As always the search for justice in the world is fraught with
inequity determined by the biases of status, wealth and race. That
theme is central here. It is an all too common story, but what sets
this play a little apart is the insertion of real life characters of the early twentieth century. The escape artist Harry Houdini, model
and thespian Evelyn Nesbitt, the wealthy magnate J. P. Morgan,
social activist Emma Goldman and civil rights leader Booker T.
Washington all play roles.
Orpheus has done a good job of bringing Terence McNally’s play,
Stephen Flaherty’s music and lynn Ahrens’ lyrics to life.
The production elements are all effective.

The most striking aspect of Tony Walker’s set is a catwalk roughly
8 or 9 feet high that spans the breadth of the upstage part of the
theatre. This is used as a bridge, a balcony or the deck of a ship as
the act ion dictates. Behind it Bob Puchyr’s lighting design creates
washes of colour that expose vignettes of huddled immigrants or
project images of New York that establish the place or the mood of
the moment.
Artistic director Bob Lackey takes the cast confidently through
New York life. There is a confidence in the cast that shows when
they trust their director. Musical director Terry Duncan takes the
voices through their paces. As always they peak when the full
strength of the powerful Orpheus chorus chimes in. There are actually three choruses all capably choreographed by
Lisa Wagner. The New Rochelle group moves a little more
reservedly than the Harlem and immigrant group as designed by
Ms. Wagner and it is an important distinction to make as it helps to
highlight the up tightness of the privileged class as contrasted with
the high spirited Harlem chorus.

Axandre Lemours played Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker
Jr. There is a dignity and power to his performance. Even when he
becomes angry by the bigotry he endures there is thoughtfulness in
his resolve that makes you root for him. I found Tzeitel Abrego as Coalhouse’s love Sarah to have some truly moving moments.
Your Daddy’s Son sung to her baby was a
particularly powerful moment vocally and emotionally.
The dynamic between Vivian Melsness as mother and Dennis Van
Staaldulen as father was very interesting . It was not a loveless
marriage but there was a well played underlying tension that
worked quite effectively.

The Latvian immigrant artist Tateh played by Paul Melsness had a
wonderful nuance to his performance. The accent was consistent
and thick enough to never doubt it but always spoken clearly so as
to be understood. It was his natural heartfelt love of his daughter
though that really sold his character to the audience.
The well rounded cast had solid performances all around. In
particular Erika Séguin as Evelyn Nesbit, had some fine moments
as the celebrated model and theatre artist who was the focus of the
trial of the century . Adam Moscoe was very good as Houdini. He
had crisp clear voice and bears a considerable resemblance to the
escape artist.
I do think that at times there may be too many fragments in the
mosaic that make up Ragtime but overall it works. That is largely
due to the considerable talent and dedication of Orpheus players
and their technical team. This is another fine effort that will appeal to long time fans and likely make a few new ones.


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