Review: The Croswell's 'Ragtime' tackles serious issues with grace and empathy
Photos courtesy of The Croswell Opera House
The American dream is thriving in “Ragtime,” the beautifully scored Tony Award winning, 1998 musical from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The Croswell’s production paints a unified picture of what our country should and could stand for; an idea of equality and patriotism which, in these divisive times, is refreshing to witness on their stage. A story of justice, legacy, redemption, and inclusion, “Ragtime” has been entertaining audiences for nearly two decades and has now landed in our own backyard; metaphorically and physically.
From the start, director Debra Ross Calabrese makes a clear stance in the path of what she hopes to accomplish. Her motivation, no doubt, is that bigotry had hardly perished at the end of the “Ragtime” era, but that maybe a hopeful future lays on the horizon.
Calabrese has managed to conquer a huge undertaking; blending a cast of over 50 performers (both old and new) - complete with interchanging set pieces - to exceptional results. You’ll walk out of this show feeling inspired on the plot alone, not to mention the onslaught of precise and stylistically well attuned entourage of musical numbers that continue to elevate The Croswell’s status in the area of community theatre.
Taking place at the turn of the 20th century, this musical follows and intersects several facets of a growing nation. The first of such devices is an upper-class white family from New Rochelle - Mother (Erin Wiley), Father (D. Ward Ensign), Mother’s Younger Brother (Jarrod Alexander), Grandfather (William McCloskey), and Little Boy (Luke Barden). Their life is an eloquent and sheltered atmosphere, far from the boroughs of Harlem, where the predominantly African-American community spends their evenings basking in the glows of a new foundation of music. It’s also where renowned pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr (portrayed by Nickolas Brown) pioneered his own brand of jazz tunes.
Meanwhile, the other half of the story follows a group of immigrants from all parts of the globe staking out futures for themselves and their loved ones. This is exemplified when the optimistic and hardworking Jewish immigrant Tateh (a driving force in the show played by the outstanding Jared Hoffert) says he doesn’t work for himself, but “for his daughter”; it’s one of the most honest lines in the entire script. Tateh and his daughter's story is filled with their hustling the streets for a living next to huge tycoons like J.P Morgan (John Baccarella) and Henry Ford (Christopher J Smith). Even iconic activists Booker T. Washington (Charles Crockett) and Emma Goldman (Jamie Lynn Buechele), as well as entertainers Harry Houdini (Mikey Del Vecchio) and Evelyn Nesbit (Dara Pardon) become engulfed by the weight of the vast landscape of our changing country (and all add unique perspectives within the at times convoluted text).
Granted, all those stories are vital to the sustainability of The Croswell’s production, but it’s how these worlds collide back home that becomes a strong component in the scripts’ coda. Most notably in New Rochelle when Mother discovers a newborn child has been buried alive in her garden. Instead of flexing her privilege to the local authorities, she takes the negro child and her mother, Sarah (Bryana Hall) into her custody; emboldening the theme of empathy in one of the many instances of selflessness throughout the show's nearly three hour runtime.
But "Ragtime" never falters in the wake of its themes or length, because when Coalhouse comes around looking for his lost love, Sarah (even singing a hoppin’ tune “Getting’ Ready Rag” to help jumpstart his quest), you’ll be glued every second. Mainly because Brown and Hall make a terrifically dynamic duo paired under Todd Schreiber's creative music direction.
This is really a cast of thousands. If speaking logistically, some of the bodies on stage could’ve been scaled back. Sometimes, quantity isn’t always the answer, and Calabrese packs every inch, nook, and cranny of the stage. “Ragtime” is already a massive show, and I never saw the need to beef up certain areas, but in comparison, each actor - looking solid under the technical design by Keith Holloway - earn their place on stage.
In addition, Pam Krage (and her noble army of volunteers and assistants) transport the audience to a century that can’t be easy to dress. From the early industrial days of the 1900s to Coalhouse’s possy of gangsters (and boy do they have swag) - Krage and company pull a rabbit out of their respective hats.
You’ll also have to keep a lookout for other surprises while viewing "Ragtime, rotating set-pieces (courtesy of Dave Nelms) and memorable and emotional musical ballads (like Sarah's "Your Daddy's Son" that helped to put another Tony Award into the hands of Audra McDonald). Pay attention, specifically, to “Till We Reach That Day” towards the end of Act I - and if you tell me you didn’t cry, I won’t believe it.
Veteran performers Jarrod Alexander (with his commanding vocal presence), Jared Hoffert, Erin Wiley, and D. Ward Ensign (among many, many others) all remind you of their insane talents. Equally important is the fresh blood like Brown, Hall, Crockett, Christopher J. Smith, and Brian D. Jones who all rise to the standards accustomed to this tier of live theatre.
Altogether, aside from the elegant performances, technical, and musical direction, The Croswell’s production of “Ragtime” speaks to the truth of our social and political climate. With all the talk of immigration and building walls, separation and neglect, Democrat or Republican, and just about everything in between clogging up the airwaves - this show prompts us that we can all accomplish tenderness and empathy towards our neighbor, no matter what side of the line we stand on.
IF YOU GO:
Ragtime continues through Sunday September 30th. You can purchase tickets via TheCroswell.org or by calling the box office 517-264-SHOW