By Pat Robbennolt
Marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime music move through the impressive production of Ragtime on the Mainstage of the Cumberland County Playhouse. Sixty-six cast members merge their skills to bring this unique musical to life.
The intolerance of immigrants, of other racial groups, the injustice experienced by the poor, the appropriate role for women, and the meaning of love are only a few of the issues tackled. We celebrate the visionary direction of Harry Bryce. After seeing this, his sixth production at CCP, we are grateful that his friendship with Jim Crabtree brings him here. Crabtree serves as associate director and scenic designer.
Basing the story on the 1975 novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, Terrace McNally conceived the plot, Stephen Flaherty wrote the music, and Lyn Ahrens supplied the lyrics. Ron Murphy with his nine-piece pit orchestra moves the show through 35 songs in the 23 scenes.
The plot focuses on three groups early in the 20th century America: Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician, represents African Americans. The matriarch of a white upper-class family in suburban New Rochelle, New York is represented by Mother, while Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, is the representative of Eastern European immigrants.
Horace Smith has returned to our stage to play the pivotal role of Coalhouse Walker. Not only is his powerful resonant voice a feast for our ears, the range of emotions he portrays, from rage to tenderness, are deeply moving.
Nicole Begue Hackmann appears as Mother, the person assumed by Father, Britt Hancock, to be unchangeable, as he escapes responsibility to visit the North Pole. Admiral Peary, Daniel Black, is captain of the ship on which Father sails, confident that nothing will change while he is gone.
Sailing past them is a rag ship of immigrants. On board are Tateh, Nathaniel Hackmann, and his little girl, Sophie Burnett. As the trio of Nathaniel and Nicole Begue Hackmann and Britt Hancock sing "Journey On," they have no idea where their interconnecting lives will lead.
Back in New Rochelle, Mother finds a newborn black baby in the garden. Sarah, Joann Coleman, is the mother whom the police have arrested. Mother chooses to take
responsibility for Sarah and the baby. It will require devoted wooing by Coalhouse, Horace Smith, to win Sarah’s trust.
Meanwhile, Younger Brother, Austin Price, is smitten with vaudeville personality Evelyn Nesbit, Lindy Pendzick. Reeling from her rejection of his advances, he joins a rally by anarchist Emma Goldman, Lauren Marshall. He affirms that his life is changed by her words: "The Night That Goldman Spoke." Unexpectedly the rally turns violent and Younger Brother finds himself in its midst.
Later, when Father returns, Price challenges him: “You are a complacent man who knows nothing of history. You have traveled far and learned nothing.” Father is certain that at least attending a baseball game will be the same, after all “baseball is a civilized past-time.” He is astounded by the rudeness, the profanity, and the lack of respect for players. The audience is not even paying attention to the action: Jack Seville is hilarious as Grandfather, sleeping through the game.
Historical figures appear from time to time. In addition to Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, and Admiral Peary, we meet Harry Houdini (Greg Pendzick), Booker T. Washington (Keith McCoy), J.P. Morgan (Bill Macchio), Henry Food (Daniel Black), Stanford White (Lenny Lively), Harry Kendall Thaw (John Dobbratz), and Matthew Henson (Michael Ruff).
We visit the Ford Factory, a Mill in Lawrence, MA, several firehouses, a baseball game, the beach in Atlantic City, NJ, the library of J.P. Morgan’s mansion, as well as several of the hideouts Coalhouse needed. It is early in the 1900s. We, the audience, are there in the midst of them all.
With such a large cast and the complex nature of the plots whirling around one
another, one might anticipate confusion both for the audience and the cast. Leila Nelson and Donald Frison have used their skills as choreographers so that the sequences work together seamlessly. The cast, ranging in age from three-year-old Noah Owens to several senior citizens, work together as a cohesive unit. The youngsters in the cast come from many schools in our immediate area and beyond. Those not noted before deserve to have their names listed. Each has his or her unique role on which Ragtime depends: Viki Avalos, Levi Bailey, Anna Baker, Darbi Banegas, Malachi Banegas. Kathryn Berman, Simon Berman, Anna Burnett, Ellie Burnett, Tori Cannon, Quinn Cason, Will Clark, Katey Dailey, DeAnna Etchison, Donald Frison, Rachel Marie Hatchett, Dee Hill, Victoria Housley, Carol Irvin, Betty Jackson, Katie Kaplan, Elizabeth Kirkland, Illeana Kirven, Madison Lee, Kaydi McCausland, Tana McDonald, Moriah McRae, Chavin Medina, Shaelynn Moore, Shaylin Morgan, Leila Nelson, Trey Norrod, Emma Olivo, Tommy Olivio, Micah Owens, Pytron Parker, Anya Riechers, Reagan Riechers, Skip Ritter, Terri Ritter, Dakota Roysdon, Chaz Sanders, Caitlin Schaub, Brooklyn Smith, Rain Smith, Zach Steele, Zeke Tinch and Brittany Trimble.
As a reviewer, I will be honest I feared I would not care for Ragtime. I absolutely loved it. It is poignant and funny. The music is superb. The energy is amazing. There are profound and thought provoking moments as Ragtime deals with life and death, with change in persons and society, with love and loss. Justice was not just a problem at the turn of the last century. As members of the audience, we leave pondering the issues of justice today.
Call for your tickets to see this “epic musical tale of America at the dawn of the 20th century,” as the quote on the front of the program states. It will run through November 16.