Theater review: SLOC scores with relevant revival of ‘Ragtime’

A trip to the Schenectady Light Opera Company’s successful production of “Ragtime” is thought-provok
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This year is the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, where heartless business practices led to the deaths of more than 100 young, poor, female immigrants. More recently, ordinary citizens have protested irresponsible banking practices in the financial districts of New York City and elsewhere. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. And that’s why a trip to SLOC’s successful production of “Ragtime” is in order: it’s thought-provoking as well as entertaining.

’Ragtime’

WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St., Schenectady

WHEN: Through Oct. 23

HOW MUCH: $28, $22

MORE INFO: 877-350-7378

Thanks to the efforts of director Joseph Fava, an enormous cast, musicians and technical crew, this 1998 musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel, holds our interest for the better part of two-and-a-half hours. Some staging choices and lapses in execution aside, the story and the music are well-served.

Doctorow’s tale of the first decade of the 20th century is a deft mix of fact and fiction. We meet numerous real-life characters, like Booker T. Washington (Emmett Ferris), Harry Houdini (Dave Dixon), Evelyn Nesbit (Amanda Jo Marshall) and Emma Goldman (Debbie May), whose actions are woven into the stories of three groups of fictional characters: Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Jahmere Holland) and Sarah (Eliza Figueroa), representing an emerging urban African-American community; Tateh (Nick Abounader) and his daughter, played on Friday by Gabriella Pizollo, newly arrived Jewish immigrants; and a wealthy white family from New Rochelle, including Mother (Joan Horgan), Father (Steven Leifer), Younger Brother (Robert L. Hegeman), Grandfather (Bill Hickman) and The Little Boy (Mitchell Famulare).

The show is bookended by two numbers that cleverly encapsulate the journeys of these individuals and, by extension, modern American history. The opening, “Ragtime,” introduces the three communities, suspicious of each other; and the concluding tableau, to “Wheels of a Dream” (and one can’t help thinking of King’s speech here), distills these combative groups into a small, loving, nuclear family, survivors of racism and economic hardship. In the middle of the show is a beautifully performed quintet, “New Music,” which uses the new genre of ragtime as a metaphor for cultural change.

The show is nearly sung through, but these performers have the chops to negotiate a long and demanding night. They also look period perfect in costumes by Fava and his assistants, Julie Goodwin, Marsha Thomas and Natalie Pizzolo.

However, the chorus has to contend with staging challenges, and it doesn’t always win. Coming and going through curtains, which serve as the set, and being often out of sight of the music director/conductor, the estimable Andrea Merrill, make for some ragged vocal entries, particularly in Act II. Also, some chorus members still seem tentative, but more performances will probably smooth those rough edges.

The same is true of the orchestra, which solidly provides all of the colorful music — waltzes, vaudeville and rag, for example — but which had some intonation problems at Friday’s opening.

On a more positive note, the rear-wall projections of black-and-white photos from the turn of the century beautifully complement the action onstage.

The featured cast members include old pros May and Hegeman, who reliably add pop to their scenes, both vocally and dramatically; Leifer, who reveals why the troupe is called a light opera company; and Horgan, who makes Mother a three-dimensional character, with “What Kind of Woman” and “Back to Before” especially noteworthy.

The newer faces include Donna J. Moore, who scores in the powerful anthem “Till We Reach That Day.” Marshall’s Nesbit is confection itself. Holland has numerous convincing moments, in “The Gettin’ Ready Rag,” for example. He also partners well with Figueroa, in glorious voice throughout the show, on “Sarah Brown Eyes.” Finally, a special nod to Nick Abounader, who brilliantly captures Tateh’s outrage, tenderness, imagination and optimism in word and song.

“Ragtime” is an event, both for participants and audience. Be a part of it.

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