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Do these things sound familiar? The United States is a mess. Black citizens are demanding justice. Immigrants continue to pour into the country looking for a better life for themselves and their children. The disparity between the rich and the poor is profound. White America is trying to understand what is happening. The musical Ragtime paints this picture of the U.S. in the early 20th century, and it seems that not too much has changed since then. Piedmont Opera's presentation brought these themes vividly to life.
The show premiered in Toronto in 1996 and went on to win several Tony awards for the subsequent Broadway production. The music and lyrics are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The book, by Terrence McNally, was based on Ragtime, a 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. The PO animated the colorful score with crack musicians and a stellar cast of principals and energetic ensemble numbers. During some scenes, the stage was filled with fifty members of ensemble and solos on a magnificent, multi-purpose set. A widely diverse and appreciative audience packed the Stevens Center main floor.
Black society was represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a jazz pianist, and his gal Sarah and their baby, as well as Booker T. Washington. The well-to-do whites were Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the Little Boy, complimented by Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. Immigrants were Jewish folks from Lithuania: Tateh and his daughter, the Little Girl. Other immigrants included Harry Houdini and political activist Emma Goldman. Finally, "working class" whites were chorus girl, actress, and model Evelyn Nesbit and Fire Chief Willie Conklin.
Michael Redding was a sturdy and passionate Coalhouse. His development from absent father to fire-breathing radical was wonderful to behold. Sarah, earnestly and strongly sung by Idella Johnson, was a crowd favorite. André Peele sang the role of Booker T. with great resonance and authority.
Scott MacLeod was Father. His well-focused sound perfectly caught his wanderlust at the opening of the show as well as his later confusion about the changes in his life and society. Jennifer DeDominici, as Mother, provided gorgeous singing and the gentle acceptance to Sarah and her baby, as well as convincingly representing a rising power for females.
Jackson Colo was the Little Boy, delivering youthful energy and innocence. Mother's Younger Brother was portrayed by Jacob Wright. His clear tenor voice caught the character of a convinced fighter for the rights of others. Bill Phillips was Grandfather; his portrayal of the cynical and politically incorrect was spot on.
Matthew Curiano's acting and singing of the role of Tateh practically stole the show. Every time he was on stage, all eyes were glued to him. His daughter, the Little Girl, was played by Hannah Richman, whose singing and dancing provided a foil to the Little Boy.
James Crowe's earnest singing of Houdini gave life to the famous escape artist. The dual roles of J.P. Morgan and the Judge were sung by Jonathan Sidden; his robust voice commanded attention. John Ebrahim's voice projected well as Henry Ford, who brought mass production to the world. Pauline Cobrda's role of the fiery anarchist Emma Goldman was arresting and ardent.
Showgirl Evelyn Nesbit was sung by Katie Muhlenkamp, whose clear soprano voice was always accompanied by a distinctive vocal "whee," which brought chuckles from the audience every time. The red-neck fire chief Willie Conklin was portrayed by Carson Weddle; his confident arrogance was frightening. Jamera Smith sang the role of Sarah's friend, whose wailing voice, especially in the funeral scene was stellar.
The pacing of the long production was first rate, thanks to the direction of Jackie Alexander, who kept the flow continuous. In the pit was James Allbritten, whose animated conducting added spark and color to the singing; he was always right with the singers. Choreographer Krisha Marcano provided the dancers with wonderful moves, perfectly in sync with the music. Lighting designer was Norman Coates and sound designer was Jason Romney.
Some picky points: when the characters were speaking, sometimes the balance between orchestra and spoken dialogue didn't allow for the characters to be clearly heard. Sometimes the lighting was exceptional, adding great drama, but sometimes important moments were in the shadows.
Closing thoughts: this is an entertaining yet profound, honest, and thought-provoking show. Even though there were warnings about language and special effects, when the n-word was first used, the audience audibly gasped. The use of other invectives, such as "coon music" or "cracker," made the viewers uncomfortable, which may speak to some progress on our part.
My understanding is that the Sunday matinee is sold-out (or nearly so) and tickets for the Tuesday show are going fast. I would urge everyone to take in this wonderfully presented production. See our sidebar for details.