Ragtime plays back the turn of the 20th century at Dayton Playhouse

By Jacqui Theobald

Photo: The Harlem Group in Ragtime, running May 12-21 at Dayton Playhouse; photos: Art Fabian

Big, bold, brisk, and brave. The Dayton Playhouse continues its pattern of undertaking giant musicals, seldom done by community theatres—and doing them well.

Audience comment overheard after the sold-out opening night: “It makes you proud to know Dayton has all this talent!”

Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, the musical, with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, is a sprawling story of life in the U.S. from 1900 to 1914. A cast of 38 showcases the attitudes of three different ethnic groups with 31 musical numbers that range from ragtime, gospel, and ballad to operatic.

Director Matthew Smith admits he was “a bit naïve at first” when he thought about what was necessary for Ragtime. “But the music is so beautiful that I knew we just had to do it and that we could.”

He quickly realized he had the help available to make it work by dividing areas of responsibility. He called on assistant director Dodie Lockwood to work on acting and accents as dialect coach. He had two choreographers: Nabachwa Ssensalo and Michael Shepherd. Their work with the company has yielded seamless coordinated movement.

He had been able to select a cast of amazingly talented people, some well known to Playhouse patrons, as well as several newcomers.

After opening with the rousing “Prologue: Ragtime,” the play introduces an upscale suburban family:  Mother (Rachel Jensen) sings “Goodbye My Love” to Father (Jeff Sams) as he leaves for a year with the Admiral Peary expedition. Hers is one of the rich, remarkable voices listed as a lead or supporting character. Brian Sharp is Grandfather.

Playing the Little Boy, Avi Gilbert introduces the story, and we meet Mother’s Younger Brother, Garrett Young, aimless except for his obsession with the actress Evelyn Nesbit (Hayley Penchoff).

In addition to scandal surrounding Nesbit, there are a number of historical figures sprinkled throughout the play, including Booker T. Washington (Franklin Johnson), Harry Houdini (Michael Plaugher), and Emma Goldman (Becky Howard). Howard is a well-cast, powerful singer (if the real Emma had this music to sing and a voice like Howard’s, she would have been impossible to resist). J.P. Morgan (Michael Shannon) also makes an appearance, along with Henry Ford (Brad Bishop).

The plot thickens when a “colored” baby is found in Mother’s garden and is accepted and protected by her, despite the family’s bigotry.

The baby’s mother, Sarah (Tia Seay), is also found and taken in by Mother, causing more family stress. “I’ve been singing all my life,” Seay says, proving it with her performance. She has a voice you feel in your bones, described in her short cast bio as “Soulful…with a powerhouse belt.”

Tateh (Ron Maurer) and his Little Girl (Peyton Deutsch), ambitious European immigrants, also encounter Mother, who does not fear or reject them. Tateh eventually works out how to turn the silhouettes he cuts into flipbooks, and from those, into early silent films. He finds the fortune he seeks to care for his child, and more.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is the hero of the African American community, leading the fight for equality. Kip Moore is the ultimate musician, with a strong, true, beautiful voice. He even “plays” ragtime on the symbolic piano with musical insight. Coalhouse and Sarah sing the soaring “Wheels of a Dream,” performances that speak to a place in the heart.

The secondary characters and the ensemble give equally strong, well-directed performances. Additionally, a quartet of singers sits just below stage right to augment.

The 17-piece orchestra is stretched across the back of the wide stage, a very visible part of this energetic musical. Ron Kindell conducts. At first, it seemed its strength might overwhelm even the sound of the entire company, but a comfortable balance was found quickly. Most speakers and solo singers are quite wisely equipped with microphones.

Set designer Chris “Red” Newman has devised a trio of set pieces—tall, rectangular, open, linear silhouettes indicating three cultures—providing an unobtrusive background for the many fast-moving scene changes. A high platform with steps is set below, supporting numerous scenes.

Theresa Kahle, costume designer, notes, “I enjoyed designing three different cultures in one show.” Kathleen Carroll, Maria Nowik, and Gloria Wenzell assisted. Kahle also costumed the recent Playhouse production, The Women.

The story takes audiences through conflict and violence and finally to resolution and compromise in the second act. There are many parallels to today’s issues: prejudice without personal contact, racial inequality, ambitious and law-abiding immigrants sharing a world with many spaces between. Yet, the finale is hopeful, with a grand, all-company rendition of “Wheels of a Dream.”

Ragtime takes the stage Friday and Saturday, May 12, 13, 19, and 20 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 14 and 21 at 2 p.m. at Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave. in Dayton. Tickets range from $13-$18. For tickets or more information, please call 937.424.8477 or visit TheDaytonPlayhouse.com.

 

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Jacqui Theobald
Reach DCP theatre critic Jacqui Theobald at JacquiTheobald@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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