Sunday, August 6, 2017

RAGTIME • Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog closes out its season with an excellent production of Terrence McNally’s sweeping musical adaptation, Ragtime. Based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, it places us at an intersection between the comfortable lives of suburbia, the disadvantaged lives in Harlem, and the enterprising optimism of newly-arrived immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The painful growth of 1900's America is illustrated in Ragtime’s rousing prologue, where we are introduced to the ingredients in this uniquely American stew.

The upper-classes are represented by Mother (Kay Love), the matriarch of a well-to-do family living in New Rochelle, New York, that made their money manufacturing fireworks. Mother embraces everyone she meets with an open heart, and Love portrays her with a genteel determination, delivering a stirring ”Back to Before”. Mother’s husband, Father, in a solid performance by Phil Leveling, is a bit of a throwback -- resistant to the changing landscape of the country.

(upper level) Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee),
Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), Mother (Kay Love),
Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro),
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones)
and (lower level) The cast of Ragtime.
Photo credit: John Lamb
In Harlem, Ragtime music was catching on, represented by a pianist named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. -- talented and amiable, but defiant in his pursuit of justice. Omega Jones plays him with charisma, style and powerful vocals -- a very impressive performance. Evan Addams, an alumna of the Artists-in-Training program with St. Louis Opera Theatre, makes her Stray Dog debut in a knockout performance as a washerwoman named Sarah, his girlfriend, who is taken in along with her illegitimate child, by Mother. She’s got a gorgeous voice, and adds goose-bump inducing top notes over the big ensemble numbers.

Then there’s Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who sells portrait silhouettes on the streets, struggling to make a decent life for himself and his daughter. Jeffrey M. Wright brings a heartfelt resilience to the role, with a lovely rendition of "Gliding”.

The cast of Ragtime.
Photo credit: John Lamb
Strong performances are also counted in the portrayals of the historical figures of the time who are added to the mix, including a provocative Laura Kyro as political activist Emma Goldman, Angela Bubash as the acclaimed model and chorus girl, Evelyn Nesbit, and Terry Lee Watkins, Jr., resolute as educator and civil rights activist, Booker T. Washington. Additionally, there's Chuck Lavazzi as a grumpy Grandfather and a volunteer fire chief, who has a penchant for the “n” word and an envious disdain for Walker and his fancy new car. Joe Webb and Avery Smith, as The Little Boy and The Little Girl respectively, also turn in great performances.

Mother (Kay Love) and Sarah (Evan Addams).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Justin Been directs Stray Dog’s huge cast of 26 smoothly and smartly, and the staging, along with sharp choreography by Mike Hodges, clarify the boundaries between these groups clearly. There are no weak links among the energetic ensemble, and the band, under the direction of Jennifer Buchheit, does a fine job with the infectious Tony-Award winning score (music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens). Eileen Engel provides the show with first-rate costume design, and David Blake’s striking scenic design of symmetrical iron railings handsomely frames the action.

There’s practically nothing to dislike about this production, and the friction between these bedrock groups of America ring with resonance today, but luckily, so does the resolve. The lyrics of Lynn Ahrens sum it all up beautifully:
“The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb...

It was the music
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it Ragtime...”

Don’t miss it. It’s playing until the 19th.

• If you’re not moved by the end of the first act closer, "Till We Reach That Day”, there may very well be something wrong with you.

Henry Ford (Jason Meyers) and
Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones).
Photo credit: John Lamb
• There's a great little number in there that pays tribute to the favorite sport of the day, baseball. The male ensemble is a hoot.


Book by Terrence McNally 
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Justin Been
Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave.
through August 19 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursdays to Saturdays at 8pm, Additional performances 8pm Wednesday, August 16 and 2pm Saturday, August 19

The Little Boy: Joe Webb
Father: Phil Leveling
Mother: Kay Love
Mother’s Younger Brother: Jon Bee
Grandfather: Chuck Lavazzi
Coalhouse Walker, Jr.: Omega Jones
Sarah: Evan Addams
Booker T. Washington: Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.
Tateh: Jeffrey M. Wright
The Little Girl: Avery Smith
Harry Houdini: Joseph Gutowski
JP Morgan: Gerry Love
Henry Ford: Jason Meyers
Emma Goldman: Laura Kyro
Evelyn Nesbit: Angela Bubash
Sarah’s Friend: Ebony Easter

Jackson Buhr
Jennifer Clodi
Chris Gauss
Melissa Sharon Harris
William Humphrey
Caleb Long
Dorrian Neymour
Kevin O’Brien
Belinda Quimby
Chrissie Watkins

Dramaturge: Sarajane Alverson
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell
Scenic Designer: David Blake
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Costume Designer: Eileen Engel
Choreographer: Mike Hodges
Production Manager: Robert M. Kapeller

The Band
Clarinet: Kelly Austermann
Piano 3: Mike Blackwood
Music Director/Piano 2: Jennifer Buchheit
Violin: Mallory Golden
Piano 1: Chris Petersen
Trumpet: John Reichert
Percussion: Joe Winters

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