THE RELEVANT MUSICAL ‘RAGTIME’ STILL HOLDS STRONG WITH TODAY'S IMMIGRANT HEADLINES
CCCT BRINGS A SUPERB CRAFT TEAM TO CREATE THE AMERICAN DREAM “TILL WE REACH THAT DAY”
If racism and immigration, homeless families and the Trump era are in the headlines today, the 1998 Broadway musical RAGTIME at CCCT is a compelling reminder that not much has changed. The Tony award winning musical is now on stage at the Flynn stage in El Cerrito through July 22. CCCT ends their stunning 58th season with this blockbuster musical. There are not many opening numbers like the stunning first moments of the vibrant RAGTIME, the Little Boy played Isaiah Johnson opens the show as he shares the history of his white elite (and according to Mother, “well off”) American family. The opening mix includes the Harlem occupants and immigrants who share their stories.
CCCT Artistic Director Marilyn Langbehn says “This is the story of America now in all its imperfection, its promise, and its obligation to live up to its founding ideals. Are we there yet? No. Can we get there. That is up to all of us“. Langbehn also directed this stunning production and uses a smaller cast to tell the story of Coalhouse Walker. Only 16 talented players tell a tale that features over 20 characters and rarely confusing but very concise and easy to follow. The cast are some of the best in the Bay area that includes the triumph return of LaMont Ridgell as he reprises the role of Coalhouse Walker that he played nine years ago with Alameda Civic Light Opera.
Set in the early 1900's, RAGTIME, written by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, mixes multiple stories of social justice, false freedom and what the American dream can become. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s best selling novel “Ragtime,” written in 1975, was a movie in 1981 and moved to the stage 15 years later. Using catchy, pop music ragtime and a plethora of heart wrenching, full volume songs that will leave you wanting more. Music Director Tania Johnson and her small but mighty six member orchestra bring a full rendering of Stephen Flaherty’s panoramic, tuneful score. The sweeping tide of songs pays tribute to ragtime composer Scott Joplin, as well as Sousa marches, parlor songs, Yiddish melodies and Broadway jazz.
RAGTIME reveals three families: the white elite, a Harlem musician, and a Latvian Jewish family during the peak popularity of Ragtime music at the turn of the 20th Century. Langbehn and clever choreographer Allison Paraiso-Silicani create a moving introduction to the families in the stunning opening number. The show offers a kaleidoscopic view of urban America in the early 1900s. The three families dominating the story are fictional as their paths intersect and merge with very real historic events along the way. Doctorow’s story is rooted in history as cameos from historic personalities such as Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington and Harry Houdini connect the fictional stories of the three groups.
The cast of 16 includes some of the best in the Bay actors, some new to CCCT and some alumni members, including the exceptional LaMont Ridgell as the powerhouse Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the elegant Robin Murray as Sarah. Their song “Wheels of a Dream” show off both their pitch perfect voices in a song that describes a true American Dream. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, shifting its main characters randomly as they all intertwine. Numbers like "What a Game", "Crime of the Century" and "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc" give the score some smiles amidst the drama of numbers like "Back to Before" and "Your Daddy's Son".
Choreographer Paraiso-Silicani brings a classic dance feel to RAGTIME that is not really a dance show. The song “Gliding” featuring the authentic Sterling Liska as the jewish father Tateh, sings to his daughter played by the enthusiastic Sophia Gilbert as the graceful dancers Clio Salzer, Rob Lewis, and Annika Bergman bring the theme of the song that visual touch.
The wonderful jazz incorporated in “Gettin Ready Rag” shows off the Harlem men along with Coalhouse show stopping dance number. “Journey On” features the immigrant Taheh played by the superb Liska, Mother played by the gifted Maria Mikheyenko and the dapper Ron Pickett as Father who bring this important song amazing emotion. Mikhaylenko also is flawless in her solo “What Kind Of Mother” after she discovers a newborn baby in her garden. Liska’s’ emotional journey as Tateh is well demonstrated, and he is engaging to watch in his number “Our Children”. His voice is also a force, and his character's determination to provide a better life for his daughter, tugs at all the emotions his immigrant political climate has evoked in the songs “A Shetl Iz Amereke” and “Success”.
Annika Bergman delivers real life character Evelyn Nesbit with the perfect sexy flirt and swagger. Her role in a larger production would feature her famous swing, yet the clever Bergman recreates that mood with a wonderful tone. Bergman’s number "Crime of the Century" is a busy number featuring the cast that tells the story for her two boyfriends. The marvelous Jennifer Rodway as Emma Goldman protests the poverty and injustice and belts out “The Night Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and drives the intensity of “He Wanted To Say.”
The bold Chris Poston delivers the celebrated Booker T. Washington whose character defines the song “Coalhouse Demands” Poston voice is exceptional. The riveting Ben Knoll is wonderful as Younger Brother, a character you love, hate, and want to emulate all at the same time as he displays courage for Coalhouse while finding his own way. He drew applause during a moment when he stands up to Father. He makes us feel his anguish in the flawless “He Wanted To Say”.
Ridgell has a voice that demands you sit up and pay attention and he brings Coalhouse that powerhouse unforgettable performance highlighted in his solo “Make Them Hear You”. The glorious Pam Drummer-Williams as Sarah’s friend and Ridgell deliver a magnificent rendition of the first act finale, “Till We Reach That Day,” that brought the CCCT sell out crowd to tears.
Every member of this cast has many hats to wear, including filling in all the chorus of the company songs. The talented players include local favorite Tom Flynn as Grandfather who asks Colehouse “Do you know any coon songs?” and he sharply replies “Coon songs are made for minstrel shows. White men sing them in blackface. This is called Ragtime” - as the melody fills the Flynn Theatre. Harry Houdini is played by the excellent Rob Lewis who shines in company number “Success” while also portraying the polar opposite Willie Conklin.
“Nothing Like the City” features the two teens in the show; Little Girl played by Sophia Gilbert, and Little Boy played by the accomplished Isaiah Johnson. “Warn the Duke” is young Johnson’s cry foreshadowing Houdini's meeting with Archduke Franz, Little Boy also acts as narrator to open the show and seems to have a talent for predicting the future.
Ariana Cohen, Umi Grant, Christina Owens, Clio Salzer, and a surprise appearance by young Journi Copes Harvey all play various characters that support this huge dynamic musical. The craft team for this production is keen, costume designer Lisa Danz who also costumed the BPH cast this past spring, had a huge demand for a cast that needed new looks for almost each scene in this two and half hour show. Danz button perfect period costumes are a highlight, especially for the Harlem cast. The lighting & effects by Courtney Johnson are especially dramatic as she has a charcoal background set to reflect the many colors and moods of this epic show.
Scenic designer Stewart Lyle’s clever set is multi-leveled and creates a dark grey background that Danz’s costumes bounce off. The use of rows of colored lights reflect off the grey tones to change the moods from scene to scene. Devon LaBelle created all the props but the Ragtime piano that doubles for the Ford Model T car that Coalhouse is a proud owner was created by Kirsten Royston (BPH). The ideal sound, designed by Simon Liu and his team including Sasha Michovsky and Opal Minor keep the cast and orchestra engaged. Stage manager Mackenzie Laurel Orvis and her team Katy Miodzik, Iggy Carothers and Lexy Miodzik have the huge assignment of getting 16 players on and off stage. Directed thoughtfully by Langbehn, this RAGTIME keeps it simple yet the dramatic emotion of Coalhouse’s path, Mother’s transformation and Tateh’s triumph is very poignant and authentic.
As the show concludes, the cast evokes passion, hope, the definition of “family”, with themes of the power of love, redemption and forgiveness. Themes that represent threads of the American social fabric. A truly vibrant but fragile tapestry of the American Dream. The opening weekend crowds were on their feet with applause at the end of each show. Next up, CCCT’s 59th Season opens with the Bay Area premiere of ALLEGIANCE, the musical, September 21. In the meantime, this summer production of RAGTIME is a must see. Tickets are selling fast - make this your perfect 4th of July event.
Contra Costa Civic Theatre Presents
An American Musical
Written by Terrence McNally music by Stephen Flaherty lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel
Directed by Marilyn Langbehn
Music Director Tania Johnson
Choreographer Allison Paraiso-Silicani
Must close July 22, 2018
951 Pomona Ave
El Cerrito 94530
Running time: 2.5 hours, one intermission
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio.