Monday, August 20, 2018

MUSICAL REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Rapturous RAGTIME

Sometimes—and it doesn’t happen very often—theater can move you like nothing else. It can lift you up, fill you with joy and despair, take you out of yourself and transform you with its ephemeral power. It can do all this in an instant, with a moment, with a turn of a phrase, the sound of a note, the unison voice of forty singers… the soaring beauty of a musical like RAGTIME.

Company Theatre’s radiant production of the Ahrens & Flaherty masterpiece (book by Terrence McNally from the sprawling E. L. Doctorow novel) moved a whole audience as if we were one being—with its rousing promise of opportunity at the turn of the century. (WWII lies ahead but only one character in RAGTIME knows that.) Alas, RAGTIME, at this time in this century, resonates for quite another (horrifying) reason.

The musical contrasts three segments of society to represent the colliding, coalescing forces in the newly prosperous industrial nation: Immigrants arriving, as the Emma Lazarus inscription pledges, to a welcoming nation; African-Americans moving to America’s cities and prospering, despite the indelible legacy of slavery; and the affluent whites, becoming richer as the working class becomes poorer.

When McNally/Ahrens/Flaherty wrote RAGTIME, they of course had no idea that their portrait of an optimistic America would have us gasping at a line about separating children from their parents, or interpreting a depiction of police beating a woman to death as “living,” not “past” history, or seeing the elated RAGTIME immigrants arriving on our shores, knowing that in 2018, they’d be turned away, reviled.

The beauty of directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman’s spirited production is that it contains this terrible resonance, yet it pulls us through it to experience RAGTIME’s magnanimous story of hope and despair. Every character stands out in relief in their production, punctuating the (many) throughlines. (The Doctorow tome is four inches thick so McNally’s distillation proves quite a feat.)

Sally Ashton Forrest’s choreography is a marvel of gestural intricacy: The dancers become cogs in Henry Ford’s assembly line and they become the syncopation within the bars of the ragtime rhythm. (Kudos to music director Steve Bass for elevating the importance of the gorgeous score. Sometimes it’s lost in the maelstrom.)

I’m recalling so many remarkable performances. I wish I could highlight them all. First and foremost is Davron S. Monroe in a tour de force as the ragtime pianist at the center of the musical. Next and foremost is Paula Markowicz as the privileged but caring Mother. You expect the big production numbers to wow but Markowicz brings down the house with her solo(s), especially the song about not being able to go “Back to Before.”

You can’t have RAGTIME’s coping mother without a blustering father and Peter S Adams captures the essence of a man who knows he’s lost and can’t go backward in this burgeoning new world. (You don’t often see a three-dimensional Father in other productions.) And you can’t have Monroe’s righteous Coalhouse without his Sarah. Arielle Rogers as his true love, carries us with her in her journey from shy, naïf to committed mother in the exquisite solo she sings to her newborn boy. (The directors smartly cast singers with operatic voices...which enhances the characterizations and makes the choral numbers sublime.)

More standouts: Sarah Kelly as a “real” character not just a cipher (as the Girl on the Velvet Swing); the same with James Fernandes as Houdini; Melissa Carubia, too, makes Emma Goldman a necessary part of the story. Todd McNeel, Jr. is a strong Booker T. Washington; Mildred E. Walker’s grieving soprano rises in flight over the mourners; Owen Veith, a fourth grader no less, can hold his own with the pros as the “little boy” who warns us that war is coming. Jeffrey Sewell gets the best line in the script and Hannah Dwyer charms us as the frail daughter of Michael Hammond’s immigrant father.

Sometimes, and it doesn’t happen very often, you see a one-of-a-kind, transcendent version of a favorite work and you realize that it can’t be frozen (in film or smart phone video) or ever repeated with the same cast. That’s the fleeting, magical nature of theater. You want to see it again. You will see it again in your mind, over and over but you want others to see it and feel the alchemy. Sadly, it’s gone. If only I hadn’t seen the very last performance.