BWW Review: RAGTIME Packs a Punch at Omaha Community Playhouse
In 1975 E. L. Doctorow wrote an epic novel that encompassed racism, immigration, feminism, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the hope of "The American Dream." Terrence McNally took that story to the stage with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Omaha Community Playhouse reprises that monumental musical from its own memorable run 13 years ago on its stage.
The lives of three divergent groups of people intersect in New York in the early 1900's. There is a wealthy white family living in New Rochelle, an African-American group in Harlem, and a newly arrived Jewish father and his young daughter from Latvia. How will these people from different walks of life find a connection? How will they make new music together, blending what is traditional, what is foreign, and what is unfamiliar?
Jodi Vaccaro as Mother is the epitome of a genteel woman who knows her place-in the home. She exists to support her family. When Father (Paul Tranisi) embarks on a sea voyage to the North Pole with Robert Peary, Mother finds her voice. She also finds an abandoned Black baby in her garden and operating under her own wishes for the first time, takes the baby into her arms and into her home along with the baby's mother, Sarah (Dara Hogan).
The father of Sarah's baby, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (J. Isaiah Smith), lives in Harlem and makes his living playing piano. His is a different kind of music he calls Ragtime. Coalhouse learns where his lost love, Sarah, is living and spends every Sunday trying to win her back.
On Ellis Island Tateh (Mike Palmreuter) and his daughter (Pieper Roeder) eagerly anticipate making a new life in America. He draws silhouettes which he serendipitously turns into movie books.
Lindsay Pape does a great job of defining the differences among the three groups by her costumes. The white family is dressed in white detailed fine garments. They carry parasols and wear hats to protect their skin from the sun. The Harlem group is dressed in cottons of varying earth tones. They are not fancy, but they are colorful. The immigrant group is dressed in rough grays and blacks, fabrics designed for function over comfort. The intermixing of these groups on stage speaks volumes. You can see with a glance 'who belongs where.'
Michelle Garrity's choreography also defines the groups. The African Americans move loosely with natural grace and rhythm. There is music in their movement and not only when they are dancing to the catchy "Gettin' Ready Rag." The immigrants move more hesitantly, using hand gestures typical in Jewish dance. The whites are more divided according to station. The wealthy family does not move like the troublemakers of the fire station. But they all move with assurance. In addition to giving the groups their own personality through movement, her group numbers are entertaining. "What a Game" shows the enthusiasm men have for the game of baseball and stereotypes their need to spit.
Jim Othuse's sets are gorgeous, as expected. The images of wheels on the backdrop combined with a moving Model T and actors wheeling in red wheels are impactful.
Director Kimberly Faith Hickman has her hands full with this large cast and complex story. There is a lot going on, much of it at the same time. Her ability to keep things flowing smoothly is impressive.
Jodi Vaccaro's lovely classical soprano is just right for a classy Mother. She remains strong, but still gentle, firm in her convictions with compassion for all. J. Isaiah's booming baritone fills the house with his Coalhouse rage. Jordan Smith's calming voice reflects the peaceful purpose of Booker T. Washington. Dara Hogan's soulful voice expresses the pain of a mother's love in "Your Daddy's Son." Joey Hartshorn as the anarchist Emma Goldman is spot on with her pitch perfect alto and ability to command the spotlight. She is a force. Megan Kelly as the rising and then fading star Evelyn Nesbitt portrays her vacuousness perfectly with a higher pitched "Crime of the Century." Supporting and starring in the musical numbers is Jim Boggess' fine orchestra, which is brilliantly located at the back of the stage.
There are other standout performances from Justin Dehmer (Willie Conklin) and Jon Flower (Younger Brother.) I particularly enjoyed Paul Tranisi as he made his journey of discovery not only at sea, but in everyday life as he transitions from a chauvinistic, close-minded man to a man who is willing to accept new ideas, and Mike Palmreuter in showing Tateh's protective love for his little girl.
Pieper Roeder (Little Girl) and Dominic Torres (Little Boy) are not only adorable, they are pint-sized pros. And speaking of adorable, there was a unanimous "ooh" as little Coalhouse (Zion Hoskins) came out on stage.
RAGTIME packs a lot into two hours. It has virtually everything: good music, history, relevance, and the hope of culling something new, something better for the future. I read that RAGTIME and THE LION KING ran neck and neck in a fierce race for the Tony Awards in 1998. My guess is that will be the case this year in Omaha. OCP is certain to give a good run for the money with this production of RAGTIME.
Photo Credit: Robertson Photography