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BWW Review: RAGTIME a Work of Great Power and Beauty Brilliantly Executed

BWW Review: RAGTIME a Work of Great Power and Beauty Brilliantly Executed

RAGTIME is a 1996 musical about the American experience at the turn of the 20th century with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty. The score is inspired by the musical styles of the period and includes marches, cakewalks, gospel and, of course, ragtime. Based on E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name about early 20th century America, the story weaves together the disparite lives of three groups: African Americans, represented by Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ben Toomer); the White upper-class of suburbia, represented by Mother (Emma Hearn), a New Rochelle matriarch; and immigrants, represented by Tateh (Trevor Berger), a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. The musical's message of acceptance and hope in the face of challenges is even more relevant today than it was two decades ago.

The musical is epic in scope in the way that it follows colliding lives in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. RAGTIME examines both the challenges and the hopes of a rapidly changing America. Fictional characters are deftly Interwoven with epic historical events and iconic figures that include Harry Houdini (Henry Ginsberg), Evelyn Nesbit (Raegan Roberts), Booker T. Washington (Jeremiah Porter), J. P. Morgan (Beau Harmon), Henry Ford (Jacob Burns), Stanford White (Brian Corkum), Harry Thaw (Chris Clark), Matthew Henson (Anthony Hinderman), and Emma Goldman (Emma Lenderman). The disparate worlds of these three groups are only connected, as the story begins, by celebrities such as these tycoons, activists and entertainers. As the century dawns, these three separate worlds begin to blur together.

From the very first number, the rousing and soaring "Ragtime", you are aware you are about to experience something exceptional. It begins with the exquisite costumes of Marissa L. Menezes highlighted as silhouettes against Brandon M. Newton's clever moving urban fire escape design, the first of many visually beautiful and breath-taking lyrical directorial moments from Michael Rau. Austin Haller's musical direction produces a gloriously rich choral sound full of exquisite harmonies from this 37 member company with a 17 piece orchestra. When you add in the stylish and superbly executed choreography of Kiira Schmidt-Carper you have all the elements for a theatrical melting pot that soars with beauty.

Brandon M. Newton's scenic design, in addition to the three moving two level fire escape units that constantly move and morph to become multiple locales, also features window units, building exteriors and walls that fly in and out and an impressive false proscenium that looks like a gigantic section of a steel bridge. It is a nice touch that adds an ever present reminder that we are in the industrial age, a period of unprecedented change in America. The set is stunningly lit by Annalise V. Caudle's lighting design that continually surprises as it enhances.

Kiira Schmidt-Carper's choreography is intricately detailed, endlessly inventive and sharply executed with style by the entire company; however, keep an eye on Brian Corkum, a young performer whose execution of her work has a truly impressive snap and flair. Among the many memorable moments are her choreography for "Gettin' Ready Rag", "Crime of the Century" and "What a Game!". Marissa L. Menezes' costumes are absolutely stunning and feature a color palette that clearly establishes which group each character belongs to, aiding greatly in keeping details clear for the audience. One of many very nice touches is the Act Two costume of Tateh which acknowledges the fact that even though the character has crossed groups, he is still an immigrant, subliminally signalled by the blue hues of the immigrant group carried over into the blue vest worn with his surburbanite white suit.

These young performers deliver moving and heartfelt work that is universally exceptional. There are six performances, however, that deserve special mention. Ben Toomer, as Coalhouse Walker, brings a quietly centered gravitas to the role, further enhanced by his rich singing voice. Raegan Roberts is a charismatic and delightful coy Evelyn Nesbit, the girl In the swing. Emma Lenderman embues Emma Goldman with both a fiery passion and a playful side. Anna Uzele makes a truly lovely Sarah, expertly wringing every possible drop out of the character's emotional arc and she possesses a soul stirring singing voice. Trevor Berger is both charming and heartbreaking in turns as Tateh. Emma Hearn is marvelous as Mother. She speaks volumes about the inner emotional state of the character without saying a word. She is the picture of the refined woman of the time. Her song, "Back to Before" is a show stopper that will bring tears to your eyes.

In summation, when it comes to musical theatre, this is how it should be done, folks. In under a decade, Kaitlin Hopkins has created a program that attracts out of state students because it turns out triple threat career bound performers and designers who deliver Broadway quality work. This is right here in our own backyard, also known as San Marcos, Texas. If RAGTIME is any indication, the future of musical theatre is in the very best of hands. My highest recommendation goes out to Texas State's Department of Theatre and Dance's production of RAGTIME. Treat yourself to this superb production of a powerful and important piece of musical theatre. The message it delivers is exactly what we need to be hearing in this country right now.

RAGTIME: Book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty.
Running Time: Approximately Three Hours, including intermission.
Content Warning: Contains adult language, racial epithets, simulated violence and sexual references. Gun shots and haze are used during the performance.

RAGTIME, presented by Texas State University's Department of Theatre and Dance in the Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre (601 University Drive, Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, 78666)

Tuesday-Sunday, April 17 - April 22, 2018
Performances at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday - Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday, April 21 and Sunday, April 22, 2018
Individual tickets start at $15 for adults and $8 for students, and may be purchased by phone at 512-245-6500 or ONLINE at Texas State Presents.

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From This Author Frank Benge