Thursday, May 12, 2011

Rags to Riches By Beverly Creasey

American Classics is on a roll. Last month they celebrated the 100th anniversary of Irving Berlin’s ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND. This past weekend the curators of the American Songbook placed ragtime front and center with their tribute to Scott Joplin.

THE KING OF RAGTIME featured Joplin’s most familiar rags (The Entertainer, The Maple Leaf Rag, The Pine Apple Rag) and some intriguing compositions like the tango-infused Mexican Serenade (with Jim Dalton’s mandolin sounding like the zither in “The Third Man” theme).

American Classics ragtime virtuoso Margaret Ulmer was in her element, clearly enjoying herself at the piano. Her shoulders kept the syncopated rhythms moving (or maybe visa versa!) while her hands swept playfully, masterfully across the keys. She beamed at co-conspirators Jim Dalton (banjo) and Eli Newburger (tuba) as they delivered the dazzling cakewalks and inventive waltzes that made Joplin a star. (His Maple Leaf Rag sold 75,000 copies as soon as the sheet music was published.) Ragtime was definitely the rage!

The evening was also a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Joplin’s folk opera, TREEMONISHA. The opera’s only performance during his lifetime was a backer’s audition, with him at the piano. Spoofs of plantation life made it to Broadway but not his earnest parable about resisting temptation and practicing forgiveness. The opera in three acts had twenty-seven musical numbers. We were treated to eleven at the American Classics performance.

James Dargan sang two bravura roles, the first a conjurer/confidence man (anticipating Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) and the second a fiery preacher (“Do you feel released?”). Anita Murrell’s voice soared as the child Monisha (Christina DeVaughn) discovered under a tree (hence the name “Treemonisha”). The memory of DeVaughn’s wrenching “I heard a baby crying…” still gives me chills and Fred VanNess’ rousing “Goin’ Around” still has my feet stepping out in place. Classics regulars Brad Conner, Mary Ann Lanier and Ben Sears joined Merle Perkins and company for the show stopping chorus numbers, closing with the “marching, hop-skipping”, sensational “Real Slow Drag.”

Joplin would be so pleased.