Sprawling 'Ragtime' Rather Ragged

“Ragtime,” the 1998 Broadway musical based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, has always been one of my favorite shows. It opened March 11 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of South Bend Civic Theatre.

Counting that, I have seen five “Ragtime” productions, including the Broadway extravaganza, two touring companies and a Michigan community theater. The last was my “rule of thumb ” for this show. Producing “Ragtime” is biting off a huge chunk of musical theater and sometimes it is just too huge to be well digested.

“Ragtime” earned Tony Awards for Best Book (by Terrence McNally), and Best Score (by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens). It was edged out for the Best Musical honor by “The Lion King.”

Under the direction of Ted Manier, with music direction by Mrs. Rebecca A. Wilson, the narrative looks at three diverse groups in turn-of-the-century America. These are represented by upper class suburban whites in New Rochelle, African-Americans in Harlem and and Eastern European immigrants at Ellis Island.

As their lives cross-cross in the sprawling libretto, which is primarily sung-through with very little dialogue, a number of historical figures including Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw and Admiral Perry, appear briefly, with longer appearances by Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman.

Heading the primary groups are Kelli Armentrout and Michael Snyder as Mother and Father, Dominic Go as Mother’s Younger Brother, Matthew Pruitt as The Little Boy, and Gary Oesch as Grandfather; Quinton McMutuary and Terrilyn J. Dennie are Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah, respectively; with Steve Chung as Tateh and Natalie Rarick as his Little Girl.

The lush and lovely score is a blend of rousing choral numbers and powerfully poignant solos, some of which lead become duos and trios, The music almost never stops. Outstanding among the soloists is Armentrout, whose clear solid soprano voice expresses the changes Mother experiences going from unquestioning wife (“Journey On”) to a individual who can never go “Back to Before.”

“Ragtime,” the 1998 Broadway musical based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, has always been one of my favorite shows. It opened March 11 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium of South Bend Civic Theatre.

Counting that, I have seen five “Ragtime” productions, including the Broadway extravaganza, two touring companies and a Michigan community theater. The last was my “rule of thumb ” for this show. Producing “Ragtime” is biting off a huge chunk of musical theater and sometimes it is just too huge to be well digested.

“Ragtime” earned Tony Awards for Best Book (by Terrence McNally), and Best Score (by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens). It was edged out for the Best Musical honor by “The Lion King.”

Under the direction of Ted Manier, with music direction by Mrs. Rebecca A. Wilson, the narrative looks at three diverse groups in turn-of-the-century America. These are represented by upper class suburban whites in New Rochelle, African-Americans in Harlem and and Eastern European immigrants at Ellis Island.

As their lives cross-cross in the sprawling libretto, which is primarily sung-through with very little dialogue, a number of historical figures including Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw and Admiral Perry, appear briefly, with longer appearances by Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman.

Heading the primary groups are Kelli Armentrout and Michael Snyder as Mother and Father, Dominic Go as Mother’s Younger Brother, Matthew Pruitt as The Little Boy, and Gary Oesch as Grandfather; Quinton McMutuary and Terrilyn J. Dennie are Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah, respectively; with Steve Chung as Tateh and Natalie Rarick as his Little Girl.

The lush and lovely score is a blend of rousing choral numbers and powerfully poignant solos, some of which lead become duos and trios, The music almost never stops. Outstanding among the soloists is Armentrout, whose clear solid soprano voice expresses the changes Mother experiences going from unquestioning wife (“Journey On”) to a individual who can never go “Back to Before.”

Quinton Walker Jr and Terrilyn J. Dennie in Ragtime at South Bend Civic TheatreShe is one of the few who can be heard and understood clearly throughout, a real necessity when the bulk of the storyline is sung. Another is baritone Go who believably portrays a frustrated young man seeking ways to right the injustices he sees all around him. Also successful is Sophie Plunkett as Evelyn Nesbit, the Girl on the Swing, heading to show biz on the “Crime of the Century.”

The 35-member cast is supported (but frequently overpowered) by an eight-piece orchestra, positioned somewhere in the theater’s lower level. This obviously makes communication difficult, and the balance between musicians and singers suffers accordingly.

In spite of the program note indicating the instillation of acoustical blankets in the dome as the “first step in improving the acoustics” in Wilson Auditorium, it is obvious that many more steps will have to be taken to prevent the significant loss of dialogue/lyrics when an actor turns either left or right. Here it also affects the choral narratives which fill in events in the passage of time, making them very difficult to understand.

“Ragtime” calls for a multitude of locations, including a home in New Rochelle, the docks of New York and the New York Public Library. Most are suggested by drab set pieces, primarily grey or white, the only one with any color being Nesbit’s red velvet swing. Little things — having the baby wrapped in the same blanket over a period of months/years and leaving the corner braces of the large scrim exposed, for example — are not addressed.

The large company works hard during the three hour (including intermission) production. One hopes acoustics in the auditorium will someday be an asset to a performance.

“RAGTIME” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and March 25-26, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 3 p.m. Sunday and March 27 in the Wilson Mainstage Auditorium, 403 N. Main St., South Bend. For reservations: 234-1112 from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays or at sbct.org.

Laughs Are A Fact at ECT's 'Rumors'

Elkhart Civic Theatre is offering two hours (plus intermission) of solid laughs in its current production of “Rumors,” one of the good ones from the extensive library of comedy master Neil Simon, which opened Friday in the Bristol Opera House.

Like his classic hit “The Odd Couple,” “Rumors” takes a rather unusual situation, inhabits it with characters that can be very familiar, peppers it with hilarious one-liners, shakes it all together and lets the hilarity escalate to frequently side-splitting proportions.

The increasingly frantic proceedings take place in the home of Charles and Myra Brock in Sneden’s Landing, N.Y. He is the Deputy Mayor of New York and they are giving a party to celebrate their 10th anniversary. At the opening curtain, first arrivals Chris and Ken Gorman (Julie Castello and Rick Nymeyer) are obviously in panic mode. The reason? Charlie is upstairs in the bedroom with a bullet hole in his earlobe, Myra is nowhere to be found and the cook and butler have left with the dinner uncooked in the kitchen

Because of his political position, the Gormans decide to keep what they believe is a failed suicide attempt to themselves and, as the three other couples arrive, begin a chain of outrageous tales to explain the absence of their hosts.

Elkhart Civic Theatre is offering two hours (plus intermission) of solid laughs in its current production of “Rumors,” one of the good ones from the extensive library of comedy master Neil Simon, which opened Friday in the Bristol Opera House.

Like his classic hit “The Odd Couple,” “Rumors” takes a rather unusual situation, inhabits it with characters that can be very familiar, peppers it with hilarious one-liners, shakes it all together and lets the hilarity escalate to frequently side-splitting proportions.

The increasingly frantic proceedings take place in the home of Charles and Myra Brock in Sneden’s Landing, N.Y. He is the Deputy Mayor of New York and they are giving a party to celebrate their 10th anniversary. At the opening curtain, first arrivals Chris and Ken Gorman (Julie Castello and Rick Nymeyer) are obviously in panic mode. The reason? Charlie is upstairs in the bedroom with a bullet hole in his earlobe, Myra is nowhere to be found and the cook and butler have left with the dinner uncooked in the kitchen

Because of his political position, the Gormans decide to keep what they believe is a failed suicide attempt to themselves and, as the three other couples arrive, begin a chain of outrageous tales to explain the absence of their hosts.

Next on the scene are Claire and Lenny Ganz (Tina LaPorte and Douglas J. Lunn)., who already are upset by the hit-and-run driver who crashed into their brand new BMW, leaving Lenny with severe whiplash and the car in much less than new condition.

They are followed by Cookie and Ernie Cusack (Georgi Shide and Bob Franklin). He is Charlie’s analyst and she, the hostess of a TV cooking show afflicted with a bad back that goes out on a moment’s notice.

Completing the guest list are Cassie and Glenn Cooper (Phyllis Oliver and Carl Wiesinger), a duo already in full bicker mode. He is running for the state senate, She feels neglected and is certain he is having an affair.

As each duo enters, those already on hand create another elaborate storyline to cover the truth, even though no one knows exactly what that truth is. Eventually, however, all are aware of the situation and stumble frantically to keep it from the local police (Dave Kempher and Joy Freude) who arrive on the scene for one reason and stay for another.

Each of the couples has his/her center stage time and deserve the laughter that follows their interactions. Lunn and LaPorte could take their act on the road, so well do they play off each other and the rest of the group. Delivery is everything in Simon, and they are masters. Guarantee no one will open a plastic bag of pretzels again without recalling Lunn’s frustrating struggles which prove to be a masterful setup.

Castello hilariously mirrors the desperation of all former smokers who yearn for just one puff in a stressful situation, Nymeyer’s “aftershock” is very well-played as is Shide’s slow cross to the kitchen and Franklin’s “lobster claws” welcome to the final duo. Oliver is properly hysterical at the unfortunate “departure” of her calming quartz crystal and Wiesinger’s reaction to the entrance of the law could be right off TMZ. Kempher’s Officer Welch is just gullible enough and Freude proves that silence is indeed golden.

The frantic evening is beautifully paced by director Penny Meyers and assistant director Annette Kaczanowski. The set, designed by John Shoup, is exactly right, from stairway to bay window to bar, with attention to detail impressive as always.

As the laughs keep mounting and the cover-ups become more and more elaborately involved, one wonders how the performers keep everything straight, then stops wondering and just sits back and enjoys.

“RUMORS” plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday in the Bristol Opera House on S.R. 120. For reservations, call 848-4116 between 1 and 5:30 p.m. weekdays.