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Review: RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at Little Firehouse Theatre

Review: RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at Little Firehouse Theatre

Bergen County Players celebrates 90th anniversary with a stirring production of “Ragtime: The Musical” and how it resonates with today in its most provocative production to date.

In celebration of its 90th year staging top-tier entertainment, it was only fitting that the Bergen County Players, based in Oradell and directed by Larry Landsman with musical direction by Steve Bell, take sold-out audiences back to the turn of the 20th Century to relive early 1900s America in a production of the 1996 musical "Ragtime" based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. An epoch characterized by polarization: a mixture of hard times and happy distractions. A time when industrious blue collar workers spent long hours in the fast-paced, tedious and tiresome factory to put food on the table every night so their families can eat and live comfortably. A time when ambitious, cautiously optimistic immigrants arrived to New York greeted by Lady Liberty in hopes of a prosperous future and the attainment of the American Dream. And those, of course, who were already living it: ladies with parasols and fellows with tennis balls against days gently tinted in lavender pink and lemon and lime. A time when the walls of racial segregation were insurmountable. Meanwhile, the men and women of color inhabiting Harlem drowned their cares with dance to the musical stylings of the debonair pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. who unwittingly becomes a terrorist. (Ari Mack). The dance ensemble (Daisha Davis, Nasir Roper, Duane Banks, Alyssa Sneed, Yaritza Liz, Chelsea-Ann Jones, and Reginald Bennett, Jr.) stole the show.

Review: RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at Little Firehouse Theatre

Despite this segregation, and indiscriminate use of the N word by racist firemen, the musical enchants with a slew of prominent 20th Century figures and businessmen like the stately Booker T. Washington (Nick Butler) who sought to establish and retain harmony between the races and dignity among the Black man, J.P. Morgan (Larry Wilbur), Henry Ford (John Rathgeb), the swingin (literally, she sings on a swing in a couple of scenes!) redheaded heartbreaker Evelyn Nesbit (Melissa Miller) whose claim to fame is her good looks and charm, and Harry Houdini played by a very believable Michael Serpe, who encourages those shackled by their disadvantaged socioeconomic situations to take matters into their own hands and muscle out of those chains if they're feeling trapped as failures. Emma Goldman is well played by Alyson Cohn.

The musical, juxtaposing the time period, is an emotional roller coaster of between exciting and frightening. A mustached immigrant Tateh (Rich Ardito) is shown on a train with his daughter on his lap (Josephine Martin) thumbing through a moving picture book on a moving train to anywhere to provide his confused, sickly-looking daughter with a happy distraction from his attempt to navigate a new country in desperate search of his place in it. Meanwhile, a little precocious boy coming from an affluent white home (Jacob Beser) who couldn't be more than 10, seems very grown up for his age but struggles with watching his language around his elders while learning to demonstrate socially appropriate behavior.

Review: RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at Little Firehouse Theatre

Meanwhile, a white matriarch (Kay Koch) picks up a throw-a-way Black baby who eventually finds his way back to his mother Sarah (Miranda Holliday) who, together with the baby's father dreams of being a family. Those plans go awry when Sarah unexpectedly dies. The Bergen County Players' staging of Ragtime: The Musical couldn't have come at a more apropos time as there are several parallels between current times and those of the early 1900s. Many people today find ourselves pursing people or opportunities not right for us, but want the thing that we think will make us happy in the long term: the men, for instance, in the musical who were put to tears when they were rejected by the beautiful but vapid Evelyn Nesbit, whose good looks and sex appeal were indeed fleeting as she vanished into obscurity, proving that true beauty is merely skin-deep.

Just as immigrants and Blacks sought acceptance and promising futures in Ragtime, the same rings true today as the world inches out of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement fueled by the late George Floyd in hopes of the same. What Ragtime: The Musical teaches people in this day and age is to not allow their sights on a better future distract themselves from the beauty of the present moment. Most importantly, to embrace this "ragtime" we are all in now as the future isn't promised and the present is all we ever have.

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Photos Courtesy of Alan Zenreich

From This Author - Lianna Albrizio

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