BWW Feature: MASH NOTE TO RAGTIME IN CONCERT at Stage 1 At The Cultural Arts Center At Glen Allen
I seem to be stuck in 2008 at the moment. That was the year that Stage 1 Theatre Company opened in Mechanicsville, in a black box theater shoehorned into Shuffles Dance Center.
Founder and artistic director Chase Kniffen would focus the company on new American musicals. He didn't make it beyond the inaugural season, but it was a fun one, including "tick...tick...BOOM" and "Summer of '42."
Before Stage 1 opened, Kniffen put together an all-star concert production of "Ragtime," the 1996 musical with a book by Terrence McNally and songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty that's based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel.
The musical debuted in Toronto, had its U.S. premiere in L.A., and got to Broadway in 1998. Reviews cited the production's lavishness, which seemed to overshadow the beautiful songs and stirring story. More recent revivals, pared down to focus on the material, seem to be faring better.
What Kniffen did, though, was to get a crowd of Richmond performers--80, according to Mary Burruss' writeup in Style Weekly--to sing through the score as a benefit for Stage 1. It was held in the auditorium at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, and I was lucky enough to be in the audience.
I'd read the novel, which I loved, and I'd seen the original Broadway production. But this evening was unique. Dozens of singers and musicians enthusiastically gave their talents to Kniffen and to the audience that night. Richard Koch, Debra Wagoner, Brett Ambler, Jan Guarino and Jerold E. Solomon all took part; as I recall, the mood in the theater was incredibly eager and supportive, and the cast threw all their skill and energy into making theatrical pyrotechnics that outdazzled anything you might find in New York.
I can remember leaving the theater that night sweaty and teary and a little shaky, which is the way I get when a show has really gotten me. I'll never forget it.
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And while we're on the subject of Kniffen, I was once chatting with him about musicals I'd love to see. I had recently seen the musical "The Light in the Piazza" on PBS. The show, based on a 1960 novella, had absolutely gorgeous songs, and I looked up the songwriter. It was Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers. I hadn't known of him before, so I looked up his back catalog and found "Floyd Collins."
I got the CD for that, and I fell in love. Such a weird true story (of a young man trapped in a cave), and such beautiful songs. I ran that CD ragged.
I told Kniffen I'd love to see the show some day, and he said it had been done in Richmond, at Swift Creek, maybe before I came to town in 2002.
This made all kinds of sense to me; the show's Kentucky setting and bluegrass sensibility seemed like a good fit for the Mill. It instantly became one of my longstanding regrets--a show that got away.
I did eventually get to see "Floyd Collins" at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada, CA, in a bare-bones production that was nevertheless delightful. And I was mindful that La Mirada Theatre had a long relationship with Cathy Rigby, with whom Kniffen had appeared in "Peter Pan" on Broadway when he was a youngster.
For one more connection, I'll add this: Google doesn't have much to offer on the Mill's 2000 production of "Floyd Collins," but I did find Holly Timberline's truncated "Footlights" feature on Tom Width's discovery of the show. (Two things I hate about the way Style stories appear on the internet: older articles are all dated January 1, 1980, and sometimes the stories just cut off before the end, as this one does.) But the way Holly tells it, Tom and I had a lot in common when it came to "Floyd."