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Review: Ragtime

Cripple Creek hits the notes of rapid, sometimes violent change at the turn of the century

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Cripple Creek Theatre Co.'s production of Ragtime, a large-scale musical that premiered in 1996 and is based on the bestselling novel about turn-of-the century America by E.L. Doctorow, has much to say about our nation's current strengths and challenges. Ragtime is a testament to the U. S.'s proud legacy of immigration, civil rights, feminism, social justice, industrialization and labor movements. Though conceived for a huge cast, full orchestra and proscenium stage, Cripple Creek's stripped-down version of Ragtime is not compromised. Its 19 actors, dressed in period costumes, assume 50 roles and perform 26 resplendent songs with piano accompaniment by Jefferson Turner in the nostalgic atmosphere of the Marigny Opera House. The actors' unamplified voices are projected beautifully, thanks to acoustics inside the stone church, and sensitive lighting sets a reflective mood. The play begins in 1906 with a series of vignettes introducing the characters and providing a continuous stream of unfolding storylines. Semi-circular seating in the nave of the church gives the show a cabaret ambience. Mother (Amy Alvarez) is a traditional wife, who is protected and provided for, living in the affluent suburb of New Rochelle, New York. She longs to be, in her words, "someone whose heart can explore" even as her husband leaves on a grand tour. Greater changes are occurring close to home, disrupting the predictable decorum, as waves of immigrants pour through New York's harbor. Alvarez's crystal-clear vocals reflect a Victorian era's womanly ideal even as she teeters on the brink of transformation. Evelyn Nesbit, the "Gibson Girl" (Angie Zeiderman), represents the new social acceptance of a free-spirited female. Educated and upwardly mobile African-Americans try to claim their own turf, demonstrated by Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Cameron-Mitchell Ware), while a white backlash looms. Walker is courageous and forthright, demanding his rights against the status quo. He performs a heartrending duet, "Wheels of a Dream," with his lover Sarah (Ashley Rose Bailey) about building a life together with their child. Jon Greene (Tateh) is outstanding in his portrayal of a Jewish Latvian immigrant with a young daughter (Jessica Lozano) who initially is disillusioned by the false promises of America. "Where is the America we were supposed to get?" he utters with a Yiddish accent. Ragtime is populated by historical characters, including anarchist and social activist Emma Goldman (Kate Kuen), African-American civil rights leader Booker T. Washington (Donald Lewis), capitalist J.P. Morgan (Andrew Vaught) and inventor Henry Ford (Shannon Flaherty), who accent the contrasts and contradictions of the rapidly changing social landscape. The stage is never static, despite many choral numbers, thanks to Nicole Buckels' vaudeville-inspired choreography, which enlivened the often weighty subject matter. Musical director Jefferson Turner achieved harmonious ensemble performances. Directed by Cripple Creek company member Emilie Whelan, Ragtime is an emotional American epic in the triumphant vein of Les Miserables, emphasizing enduring class struggle for justice and equality.

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