Saturday, April 20, 2013

Perfect Ragtime by Atlanta Lyric Theatre

image from ALT's Facebook page
(Reflections on RAGTIME, the musical.  Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.  Production by Atlantic Lyric Theatre at the Strand Theatre, Marietta, GA.  Production directed by Alan Kilpatrick.  Performance of April 18, 2013.)

Colorful, warm, ingenious, and crammed full of energetic and soulful songs, the musical RAGTIME unfolds the interrelated stories of three families and numerous celebrities of the early 1900s with clarity and efficiency.  Aside from narrowness of stage and muddy acoustics at Marietta’s restored Strand Theatre, nothing lacked in the production by the Atlanta Lyric Theatre.  Voices, staging, band, and design all sold the material to us with clarity and vigor.

The songs are beautifully crafted and fitting to the historical era and to the characters. Taken together, they move the story along, signaling by style when we move from the parlor songs of genteel Anglos to a honky-tonk or church with Black characters, to the Eastern European immigrants in town.  Ragtime is itself important to the story and a metaphor for a “ragged time” of transition when whites, blacks, and immigrants were all drawn to the sound.  Lyrics sound natural as speech, while neat rhymes point up meaningful thoughts; the songs build to climaxes sometimes loud, sometimes pensive.  Dances often reinforce the action. 

The only problem is that every second or third song seems to be teaching us something about America in the 1900s, until we feel that we’re watching a great story wrapped in an essay. We're taught by the remarkable opening number how everything certain in the lives of complacent wealthy Anglos is soon to be shaken by encounters with Blacks and Immigrants. This is acted out in song and dance, in which these groups cakewalk around each other and back away from confrontations.  It's very effective. But the next song tells us the same thing, from the point of view of the complacent Anglo “Mother.”  As her world does crumble, she tells us about it in three more songs, two shared with others who are having similar experiences.  By the end of show, when “Mother” reflected fourth time how life can’t go “Back to Before,” actress Christy Baggett's beautiful and earnest singing  could not keep us from feeling that she'd been used to reiterate a thesis statement.  With two anthems, “Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You,” the songwriters use the character Coalhouse (played by Kevin Harry) as a spokesman for all people of color in America early in the 20th century.  Mr. Harry sang with conviction, his powerful voice sustaining long notes over the climaxes, and he earned thunderous applause -- as a spokesman.  Then he went back to being Coalhouse.

One number, "He Wanted to Say," is led by socialist activist Emma Goldman (Ingrid Cole) with a big voice and big heart.  Eventually, the entire ensemble is singing a rousing anthem consisting of all the things that "Younger Brother" (Matthew Kacergis) feels about the injustices of life in the USA.  Yet this lecture on social ills and White man's guilt is made funny and personal because it's all the stuff that the character cannot put in coherent form. 

Social commentary is acted out for laughs with "What a Game,"  depicting the Father's misguided effort to connect to his young son by taking him to a baseball game.  Father learns to his discomfort, and to his son's delight, that the "gentleman's game" has been appropriated by the working class, and it isn't as genteel as it used to be in his days at Harvard. 

Other songs could be magical. "The Courtship" alternates music and dialogue, covering months during which Coalhouse tries to atone for the way he wronged Sarah (played by Jeanette Illidge), mother of his child. There's a gentle duet between immigrant father Tateh (Stanley Allyn Owen) and "Mother," discovering kinship as parents across a wide social divide ("Nothing Like the City").  Deep in the second act, when Coalhouse seeks vengeance for the killing of his beloved Sarah, he remembers meeting her at the club where he played piano, and he re-enacts his love song to her, “Sarah Brown Eyes.”  Sarah appears upstage of him, and each mimes dancing with the other, several step apart.  We know it’s a memory, and we can guess what’s ahead, but this bittersweet interlude was a highpoint of the show.

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