Luster of "Constant Star" Lacking in "Ragtime"
Written and directed by Tazewell Thompson; musical director and vocal arranger, Dianne Adams McDowell; scenic designer, Donald Eastman; costume designer, Merrily Murray-Walsh; lighting designer, Robert Wierzel; sound designer, Fabian Obispo
Starring (as Ida B. Wells) Crystal Fox, Carly Hughes, Tracey Conyer Lee, Laiona Michelle, and Gayle Turner
Civil rights leader, journalist, suffragette, political candidate, wife and mother Ida B. Wells was such a powerful force against tyranny and injustice at the turn of the century that it took five women to portray her in Tazewell Thompson's thrilling "Constant Star" presented by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, Mass. At times as a quintet, at times individually, all five actresses brought impassioned interpretations to the inspirational writings and speeches of one of America's most outspoken and effective activists against segregation and lynching.
With waltz-like grace, these gifted performers of varying ages and stature took us on a spirited journey from Ida's astonishing youth in post-Civil War Mississippi through her controversial but ceaselessly dedicated lifelong career as a social agitator. Representing five different facets of Wells' complex personality, the actresses often finished each other's sentences and gave their collective selves the sisterly support that Ida's contemporaries seldom offered. They also assumed, chameleon-like, the roles of many of the prominent people and antagonists in Wells' tumultuous life - a critical Susan B. Anthony, an admonishing Booker T. Washington, the volatile and racist members of the KKK, President McKinley's henchmen from the FBI, and all the self-interested women and African Americans who feared that her brazen militancy would jeopardize their more acquiescent bids for equality and the right to vote.
Enhancing the power of Thompson's smoothly constructed narrative were 20 stirring Negro Spirituals sung a cappella in five-part harmony by the cast. With the intensity of a spirited gospel choir, the women's rich, expressive, and penetrating voices filled the theater with chords of pain, hope, anger, celebration, determination, and triumph. The audience couldn't help but join in with accompanying applause.
Merrimack Rep's production of "Constant Star" also boasted pitch-perfect sound design, evocative lighting, a flexible yet inviting multi-period industrialized set, and elegant, decades-spanning costumes that lent a timeless texture to Wells' career. "Constant Star" shone with a brightness magnified five-fold. It was a luminous production of a fascinating life.
Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow; directed by Brett Mallard; choreographed by Brandon Mallard; music directed by William Asher; scenic design by Dane E. Leeman; lighting design by Aaron Hutto; costume design by Susan Cassidy
While the staging was energetic and the performances sincere, the Seacoast Repertory Theatre's production of "Ragtime" could not deliver the full depth and power of this award-winning and emotionally stirring musical. The Portsmouth, NH company's chiefly local, non-equity cast simply lacked the individual and collective voices necessary to make Terrence McNally's elaborate book or Ahrens and Flaherty's vibrant music resonate and soar.
College freshman Mariela Hill made a lovely Sarah; Michael Quezzaire-Belle was a charming and proud Coalhouse Walker; and Barbara Lawler gave us a Mother whose awakening to the harsh realities of life outside of lily white New Rochelle was truly moving. But even the sweet, solid vocals of these three principles lacked the authority to bring chills to the audience during numbers such as "Wheels of a Dream" or "Back to Before." In addition, a fairly youthful cast was often unable to sustain the drama between the "haves" and the "have nots" in an America that proclaimed fame, fortune, and justice for all while systematically restricting immigrants and people of color from taking advantage of equal opportunities.
The biggest problem with Seacoast's "Ragtime," however, was the blisteringly painful synthesized and pre-programmed orchestrations that were dialed up beyond all reason. Even the most seasoned Broadway veterans would have had trouble being heard over the distorted electronic strings and keyboards that poured out of massive overhead speakers.
Still, there was a vibrant quality to the direction, choreography, and ensemble performances that did make this production of "Ragtime" enjoyable. The enthusiastic theatergoers present on opening night would undoubtedly have said that seeing Ahrens and Flaherty's most rousing work to date was more than worthwhile.