BWW Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Tuscaloosa Touches Your Heart With The American Dream
I bet if you pick up a newspaper right now, you are sure to find bolded headlines about race, immigration, sexism and classism in America. These are the issues heavy at the core of "Ragtime: The Musical." Theatre Tuscaloosa is offering this timeless and moving musical with a powerhouse ensemble. "Ragtime" delivers Tony Award winning lyrics and music singing of struggles of equality and opportunity in 1906 New York City. The opening line states "In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed for some years thereafter that all the family's days would be warm and fair." Mother (Lisa Waldrop) is a loving and compassionate matriarch of their family. Father (Brent Jones) a wealthy and adventurous man who's eyes on the horizon neglects the family he often leaves behind. Her Younger Brother (John L. Walker) is an innocent soul whose lack of purpose becomes explosive. Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Willie Williams), is a talented pianist and educated man of color seeking to win back his love Sarah (Carli Hardon) who has gone missing. Unbeknownst to Coalhouse, Sarah is with child and has fled to New Rochelle. There she and the baby receive unexpected sanctuary and kindness from Mother. Tateh (David Cordell) is newly arrived to New York from Russia with his frail daughter (Meredith Vaughn). They are ragged and without a dollar to their name. Tateh's artistic skill and determination to make a new life for his daughter keeps him clawing to survive. In a twist of fate and tragedy these three families become intertwined. Just like America itself, "Ragtime" is a wonderful tapestry of different people coming together, spinning "the wheels of a dream."
The stellar cast is skillfully directed by Tina Turley. Her care and pacing deliver an effective and unified performance. Each actor has done hard work to connect to each character and their performance shines as a result. The musical direction by Leslie Poss is spot on. The actors are clear, crisp and have the essential power and emotion needed in each song. Set designer Wheeler Kincaid and lighting designer Erin Hisey give the actors a wonderful space to perform that is bold but not overpowering.
Lisa Waldrop brings a sensitive soul to Mother. It is a role she's has wanted to do since she saw the original company perform on Broadway in 1996. "Mother's songs and words are so powerful. They kind of speak the truth to this whole show. The evolution and change in her kind of reflects what's going on around her and in her world." Waldrop's emotional range is displayed in the evolution of Mother as the play progresses. "I love the justxtapasiion of her with Father as they change. She is willing to acknowledge being wrong. That's my favorite line that I have. I think that is an important nugget to be found in the context of the story." She finds the story set in 1906 to be reflective to what is going on in 2017. The thing about this show twenty years ago was that it felt like a snapshot of history and today it feels contemporary. Today it feels very current. If you put the characters in jeans and gave us cell phones and replaced us with a Kardashian, it would be very contemporary." At risk of misusing using current vocabulary, Waldrop's polished performance gives you "the feels".
Brent Jones brings the role of Father to life. He gives a performance with much care in the keeping stern adventurer believable and relatable. His voice rings with a firm and authoritative tone.
Willie Williams dives into the role of Coalhouse with a strong voice and commanding stage presence. He found this role to be a challenge and in many ways an expression of himself. "In todays time I don't have to tell you how we can definably relate to his situation. Trying to make it as a professional and to be respected as such. I relate to this, like its me in a different time." Coalhouse is a role he has been waiting to do for years. "Ive always enjoyed the music and sung along with the songs. Coalhouse is a big character. It is very demanding. The biggest thing I had to overcome was stepping into the music that he sings." Williams gives his heart into his performance and it shows.
Carli Hardon performs the role of Sarah with a stellar voice and an honest tenderness. Finding an emotional connection to her backstory was important to Hardon. "It's not told as much as many of the other characters. I try to tap into what she is feeling. I've never had a child; I've never been in love and been left. Having to find my way into that was so empowering. I really want to tell her powerful story." She found a real challenge in giving her voice to Sarah. "First I had to get past my terror. The show is so monumental. It leads to a feeling to do the songs justice. I had to push through that. Once I'm in it I get swept away. I can't even explain it." Her shining performance is glowing with much sweetness and energy.
David Cordell is a dynamo of expression and emotion in the role of Tateh. He is a dutiful and determined immigrant widower who is desperately trying to forge a future for himself and his young daughter (Meredith Vaughn). Cordell conveys Tateh's joy, angst, anger and love with seamless precision. His beautiful voice wraps you much like the prayer shawl he uses to warm his daughter in the show.
John L. Walker plays Younger Brother, the "poor young bourgeois" of the family from New Rochelle. He begins as a nebbish man lost in life but finds his purpose through tragedy. "This is a powerful piece for our time, our community and our nation." He is moved by the awakening in the characters as the story progresses. "So many people wake up and are shocked by something or not shocked by something they should be. Playing the evolution of the character is a highlight for Walker. The challenge of "going into the show with a new innocence each night. Having that wake up moment and then to wipe that slate clean and go with it."
The huge "Ragtime" ensemble is rich with seasoned and energetic actors who commit and give it all. The story weaves in historical figures into the storyline.
J.P. Morgan is played with precision by Andrew Smith. His long stage history and extensive research into the role makes him a heavy hitter in the show. "Morgan was a megalomaniac. He was an ass and he was rich in a degree that the wildest oligarchs in the modern world have no comparison. By the same token he had a very odd sense of humor. " Smith gives his heart into the role and finds much power in the message of "Ragtime." "The show is very meaningful without being preachy. Every single character has a viewpoint, has flaws. You get to see the many facets in the issues of gender, family and race. Its one of those shows where you have to unpack, it sits on you and you have to think about it a long time. "
Jonathon Lyons gives a stoic performance as Booker T. Washington. To find the tone of the character Lyons looked into his own life to prepare for the role. " I used my experience as a father to guide and applied that to him being a guide for black children if you will and become a father figure. Lyons booms forth a voice rich with authority and wisdom. "He is someone who is stetting an example as what he sees the future to be like. To be inclusive with black, white, Jews and all different races."
Kudos to the following actors for bringing incredible character work. Jeff Wilson brings the thunder as the racist Willie Conklin. His commitment and delivery will give you shivers. Sarah's Friend played by NorQuina Rieves delivers an emotional solo that raises the house. Kathy Wilson plays Emma Goldman with panache and brassy attitude. Josh Kauffman as Henry Ford, Dylan Guy Davis as Harry Houdini and Sophia Priolo as Evelyn Nesbit chew up each scene they are in with much flair.
Tina Turley directs "Ragtime" with respect and fearlessness. It's been a show on her bucket list for many years. She was excited once all the elements came together. "Its not like finding one lead you have to find six. I just felt like with what's going on in the world today, it is a really good time to revisit this piece. I think it is as relevant now as it was when it first came out, maybe even more so. I didn't realize how much we needed this when I first picked it. I knew we were having some unrest. We have to teach out kids" I am proud of this whole piece." She takes much pride in her position with Theatre Tuscaloosa along with its actors, crew and staff. "This is the community's theater. The actors are volunteers and this is what they love. It is their pastime."
They should all be extremely proud for "Ragtime" at Theatre Tuscaloosa is an essential and well-produced musical that touches you in both your heart and mind.
Directed by Tina Turley
Wednesday, July 19 - 2:00 PM
Thursday, July 20 - 7:30 PM *Post-show discussion
Friday, July 21 - 7:30 PM
Saturday, July 22 - 2:00 PM
Sunday July 23 - 2:00 PM
9500 Old Greensboro Road (on the campus of Shelton State Community College)
Tuscaloosa, AL 35405
Tickets and more info at (205) 391-2227 and www.theatretusc.com
The show runs 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Ragtime is recommended for children ages 12 and older. The play contains physical altercations and gunshots on stage.
* - PHOTO CREDITS - P. Solorzano.