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BWW Reviews: 'Extraordinary' Performances Highlight Street Theatre Company's RAGTIME IN CONCERT

With a lush score by Stephen Flaherty and beautiful lyrics by Lynn Ahrens set against the backdrop of a compelling book by the illustrious Terrence McNally - based upon the eponymous 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow - Ragtime is one of the most stirring works for musical theater ever created. Now, in a superb concert mounting from Street Theater Company, featuring outstanding performances of some gifted artists, Nashville audiences once more are given the opportunity to revel in the awesome storytelling of the piece for one weekend only.

More to the point, Ragtime in Concert at Street Theatre Company is not to be missed. It is an awe-inspiring night of theater, staged with confidence and a practiced eye for what works visually by Cathy Street and Jane Kelley (who also conducts the 30-some member ensemble) and featuring the always significant contributions of music director Rollie Mains, this production obviously emphasizes the extraordinary musical score that, without danger of exaggeration, should be included in the pantheon of musical theater's greatest accomplishments. I defy you to hear the title tune, "New Music," and "Wheels of a Dream" (or any number of other songs from the score, to be honest) and not to find your heart soaring - they are finely crafted works of art.

Flaherty and Ahrens have created a score that evokes the play's time period - the play's action opens in 1906 - with a pastiche of musical styles that includes gospel, cakewalks, marches, showtunes and, of course, ragtime. As a result, it sounds very much "of the period," yet it somehow is very contemporary and "of the moment." Certainly, Flaherty and Ahrens walk a fine line here, showing reverence for the musical idioms that inspired their impressive collaborative effort, but they are able to inject a sense of relevance that makes Ragtime all the more appealing to audiences.

McNally's book for the musical takes some much-needed liberties with Doctorow's original source material, but he remains faithful to the tone of the novel and draws inspiration for the play's structure from it. He interweaves the stories of Doctorow's fictional characters (Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Coalhouse Walker, et al) giving their lives context by setting them in a very real early 20th century America inhabited by such historical personalities as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbitt, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Admiral Peary, Matthew Henson, Harry K. Thaw and Stanford White.

Together Flaherty, Ahrens and McNally, thanks to Doctorow's inspiration, give us a look into the world-changing events of a new century - fraught with social upheavals, new discoveries and life-changing inventions - that resonate today, reminding us all that with each passing day, change is inevitable and the promise of a bright future awaits, however dimly it shines, further down the road. And while the greater implications of a new century loom large in Ragtime, the more personal stories of Father, Mother, Tateh, Coalhouse and his beloved Sarah provide the story with its true heart, making it much more accessible.

In Ragtime in Concert at STC, the company offers a refreshing remounting of the show - which is almost completely sung-through - that puts the focus on the intimate stories related and showcasing the music to grand effect. The orchestra that accompanies the 30-some voices onstage performs the technically challenging score with total commitment, the eight-member STC band skillfully delivering a score originally written for more than 20 musicians. The orchestra's accomplishments are just as impressive as those of the onstage actors and singers who bring the myriad of characters, both real and fictional, to life onstage before you.

And oh, what a wondrous cast of performers has been assembled by Street and Kelley! Of course, with a cast of this size and the realities of local theater, there is some disparity among the cast members insofar as experience and ability are concerned, but every single person on that stage is resolutely and convincingly committed to the task at hand. This being Music City, of course, the sound that issues forth from the assembled performers is nothing short of electrifying, certain to elicit your own emotionally charged reaction. Prepare yourself to become awestruck by this beautifully rendered music.

The cast is led by the inimitable Bakari King, who is given a role that easily could have been written for him as he plays Coalhouse Walker with great dignity and an almost indefinable thing that might best be called "grace." His nuanced performance is at once larger than life and somehow down-to-earth and his scenes with Naeidria Callihan (as Sarah) are heart-wrenchingly moving and heartwarmingly romantic. If Callihan seemed nervous on opening night, credit that to the large audience in attendance, and the overwhelming responsibilities she must have felt what with the original Sarah - Audra McDonald - having presented a concert in Nashville the night before. Nonetheless, Callihan makes the role her own, uniquely interpreting the character while self-assuredly taking on Sarah's musical program.

Julie Forrester, who understudied Maria Friedman in her Olivier Award-winning role as Mother in the debut West End production of Ragtime, easily takes on that role and gives a richly hued portrayal, imbuing the character with warmth and maternal benevolence, showing a thorough commitment to her character's emotional arc in the play. Forrester's performance of "Back to Before," filled with passion and barely concealed rage, may have earned the night's loudest ovations from a rapt audience.

Playing Father, the businessman cum adventurer who leaves his quiet family life for a voyage to the North Pole with Admiral Peary (and then comes home to find any semblance of domestic order upended), Matt Baugher is nothing short of perfect. Tall and handsome, with a palpable command of his onstage presence and his fictional family life, Baugher is the embodiment of the American Dream writ large, providing a core of stability in the ever-evolving new century. His exceptional voice is perhaps most effective in "New Music," the haunting melody of which has never sounded better.

Michael Kitts, who made audiences and critics alike sit up and take notice of him in his role of Anatoly in Chess in Concert at STC (which launched the company's acclaimed concert series last spring), once again shows off his amazing range with a multi-dimensional performance as Tateh, the Latvian Jewish father so completely devoted to his daughter. The role of Tateh takes what is perhaps the most incredible journey in the teeming cast of characters, as we first meet him as a frightened yet hopeful immigrant and witness his eventual rise to successful moviemaker. In a cast filled with extraordinary actors giving noteworthy performances, Kitts stakes his claim on top honors. His "Gliding" is ethereal and lovely, while his "Our Children," performed with Forrester, is sentimental and heartfelt, providing the contrast that makes his horrifying rage all the more compellingly felt.

Katherine Sandoval Taylor (when will someone cast this woman in a role that's truly worthy of her exquisite voice and stage presence?) turns the saucy role of Evelyn Nesbitt into so much more than a cameo appearance in Ragtime, making her a far more integral part of the storytelling - "Crime of the Century" remains one of the most entertaining numbers in the musical score as a result of her performance.

Among the many other supporting performances, Christine Poythress is ideally cast as Emma Goldman and her version of "He Wanted to Say," sung with CameRon Frazier who plays Younger Brother, is a highlight of an evening filled with them. Young Thomas Harton confidently plays Harry Houdini and RandAl Cooper plays the fiery racist Willie Conklin with vigor, while James Rudolph, Bill Jones, Joshua Waldrep, Stephen Henry and Neil Bergman make the most of their limited facetime with finely etched cameos. Twelve-year-old Faith Davenport is lovely as Tateh's "Little Girl," while young Dalton Tilghman (as Edgar, the "Little Boy") shows off skills beyond his age as he bookends the musical's action with his expert delivery, presaging what is to come in the new century with his "Warn the Duke!" - heralding the coming Great War that marked the world's final break with the past to move headlong into the modern era.

With only five performances remaining, tickets to Ragtime in Concert are sure to go quickly and you won't want to be left out of the conversation when your friends, family and coworkers enthusiastically recall the extraordinary performances they saw. In other words, don't miss it.

- Ragtime in Concert. Book by Terrence McNally. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Based upon the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Staging by Cathy Street and Jane Kelley. Musical direction by Rollie Mains. Presented by Street Theatre Company, Nashville. For details, visit www.streettheatrecompany.org; for reservations, call (615) 554-7414.

 


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