note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi
Coalhouse … Justin A. L. Waithe
Sarah … Marshalee Ducille
Mother … Maria Wardwell
Younger Brother … John Raftery
Father … Brian Ott
Son … David Mokriski
Grandfather … Jack Agnew
Tateh … Steven Littlehale
Little Girl … Gabriella Guinta
Emma Goldman … Christina Pizzo Buxton
Evelyn Nesbitt … Kristin Shoop
Houdini … Ian Flynn
Booker T. Washington … Steven Key
Sarah’s Friend … Dee Crawford
Henry Ford … Ron Brinn
Willie Conklin … Jason Beals
J. P. Morgan … P. K. Egersheim
Little Coalhouse … Darian Johnson; Aaron Crawford, Jr.
P. K. Egersheim
Conductor; Keyboard … Thomas Lissey
Banjo; Guitar; Mandolin; Trumpet … Brian Ott
Flute; Piccolo … Caroline Ott
Trombone … Chris Ryan
Violin … Bekka Schellenberg
Percussion … Len Simboski
Clainet; Saxophone … Demetrius Spaneas
Keyboard … Jason Whiting
Opening Nights are always green; at this time, the brightest bloom in The Footlight Club’s production of the musical RAGTIME is Justin A. L. Waithe, who makes an impressive stage debut as Coalhouse Walker.
E. L. Doctorow’s RAGTIME is his fantasia on the Great American Novel, bringing together three contrasted families (Wasp; Black; Jewish) in pre-WWI New York and buttressing them with real-life personages (Emma Goldman; Evelyn Nesbitt; J. P. Morgan, etc.). Mr. Doctorow weaves together fact and fiction, nostalgia and realty with a dazzling lightness that turned leaden in the 1981 film version (the novel’s magic lies in its narrative). Terrence McNally’s libretto is more successful in capturing the novel’s style but also catches its flaw: Mr. Doctorow begins and ends with a tapestry which is weighed down in the middle by a plot --- Coalhouse Walker’s vengeance against white society for the death of his woman and the vandalism of his Model T Ford --- it is a pity that Coalhouse’s still-timely tragedy must be pushed aside for a rowdy afternoon at a baseball game and the delights of Atlantic City. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren’s Tony Award-winning score has a memorable opening number that introduces the main characters (though I doubt the well-to-do white society of its day would have ragtime music as its signature tune) and the duet, “Wheels of a Dream” where Coalhouse and Sarah envisage the future for themselves and their newborn son; elsewhere, Mr. Flaherty and Ms. Ahren provide serviceable shifts of sounds, old, new and in between.
I did not see the original Broadway production but assume it made full use of all the stage machinery that the Great White Way has to offer. Placing RAGTIME’S large ensemble on a small stage that has no turntables and little fly space is a challenge that actor-director Bill Doscher has met rather well (Steve Orr’s unit set is minimal; all bricks and curtains). Ideally, a well-flowing ensemble would take the place of well-flowing scenery: for the record, Mr. Doscher’s cast sings far better than it moves; thus, Laurie Fisher keeps her dance steps simple --- kick lines, waltzes and marching about --- and, as is often the case with community theatre, the evening is pleasant enough with jump-starts of inspiration: “The Getting Ready Rag”, where Coalhouse and his fellow Harlemites dance --- actually dance --- with Fosse-like precision; two wails from the heart: Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son” and the Act One finale “Till We Reach That Day”, sung over Sarah’s corpse; and, predictably, “Wheels of a Dream” which stops the show, cold. There should be little surprise over the black side of RAGTIME coming off better than the white side: apart from the Jewish immigrant Tateh, brimming over with life, the Messrs. Doctorow and McNally’s whites are cardboard cut-outs --- the Wasp family doesn’t even have names, which proves awkward in their entrances (i.e., “Oh, it’s you,” etc.) --- while Coalhouse and Sarah have names, identities and conflicts; their race also has the more accessible music (ragtime, gospel and the blues); it boils down to the old saw of whites being well-off but repressed, whereas blacks are oppressed but know how to have a good time, and who would you rather spend an evening with?
But back to Mr. Waithe, a young man who until now has sung for years in church groups and concert halls but never onstage; though a bit stiff, his Coalhouse is alternately charming and chilling, and he pours out a ringing tone when required. Mr. Waithe is magnificently supported by Marshalee Ducille, which in turn reinforces Sarah’s devotion to her man though I’m concerned that Ms. Ducille’s pulling out all the vocal stops will eventually strain her thin, smoky voice. On paper, the role of Tateh is yet another loveable Yid, full of shrugs and peasant wisdom, blessedly, Steven Littlehale mixes in enough salt with the sugar and, despite a tendency to flatten his upper register, is the liveliest fellow onstage, going through an encyclopedia of body language: fatherly possessiveness towards his daughter; servile humbleness as a salesman; put-on arrogance when he is in charge; a lover’s gentleness which will pay off in the end --- he dances, even when he isn’t dancing. Brian Ott is an adorable little Father though he would be far more effective if he presented a stern façade to world instead of the same mild-mannered one that he wears for his reflective arias and Mary Wardwell carefully picks her way through the role of Mother, the actress being as reserved as the character. Kristen Shoop makes a tart little alley cat out of Evelyn Nesbitt (she, too, moves well, enough) and the current sound system all but drowns outs Dee Crawford’s gut-wrenching cries during Sarah’s wake. But sincerity won the evening, overall, and Mr. Waithe received a well-earned ovation. It is too early to say that a Star is born --- Mr. Waithe still has a ways to go, should he pursue a stage career --- but a Star has definitely been glimpsed.