Sprawling 'Ragtime' Rather Ragged PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 18 March 2011 00:00

"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.

Ragtime at the South Bend Civic TheatreCounting 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.

Last Updated on Saturday, 16 April 2011 23:00

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