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Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Book by Terrence McNally
Directed by Shaun Patrick Tubbs
Choreographed by Leah Tubbs
Union Avenue Opera
August 18, 2023

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by Dan Donovan Photography
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera’s relatively new tradition of staging compelling musical theatre productions continues with their 2023 season closing show, Ragtime. This is a big show, with a large cast that, as is fitting for an opera company, especially highlights the superb vocals of its well-chosen cast. It’s also a detailed, well-produced show in a technical sense.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s celebrated novel, Ragtime tells the intersecting stories of three distinct groups of people and the times in which they live, featuring actual events and celebrities of the time interacting with Doctorow’s original characters. The focal characters include the white residents of affluent New York City suburb New Rochelle, represented by obtuse, world-traveling Father Eric J. McConnell, and pampered Mother (Debby Lennon), along with their son Edgar (Gavin Nobbe), Mother’s aimless Younger Brother (James Stevens), and the curmudgeonly Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi). Meanwhile, in Harlem, Black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nyghél J. Byrd) entertains and develops a following, but he has grand plans involving a young woman, Sarah (Jazmine Olwalia), with whom he has had a relationship and wants to renew the connection after Sarah has fled to New Rochelle and is taken in by Mother, along with her newborn son. Meanwhile, Tateh (Marc Shapman), and his daughter, the Little Girl (Nora Sprowls) are newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Latvia, and Tateh struggles to provide a safe, prosperous life for his daughter in the midst of poverty and discrimination. When Coalhouse, who has recently bought a shiny new Model-T car, starts spending many days in New Rochelle courting Sarah, he rouses the ire of racist fire chief Willie Conklin (Philip Touchette) and his cronies, who vandalize Coalhouse’s car and set into motion a series of events that eventually lead to profound tragedy and upheaval, as the 20th Century begins on a dramatic note and the various characters pursue their hopes and dreams in the midst of conflict and turmoil.  

There’s a lot happening in this story, and the writers do well in blending all the plotlines in, with historical events and figures being seamlessly inserted into the overarching story, as some of these characters–especially anarchist and activist Emma Goldman (Liya Khaimova)–serving as occasional narrators and commentators. Other figures like performer Evelyn Nesbit (Gina Malone), illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini (Joel Rogier), and educator Booker T. Washington (Miles Brenton) play more prominent roles in the story along with the main characters, including Mother, Tateh, and Coalhouse and Sarah. It’s a sweeping story, and Union Avenue Opera has brought together a large cast and a more elaborate set than I’ve seen before at this venue, with the result being a compelling, emotional, and thought-provoking work that highlights a truly remarkable score.

The voices are magnificent, led by Byrd and Olwalia, who both give excellent performances and fill the sanctuary at Union Avenue Christian Church with their stellar vocals and convincing performances. These two are the heart of this production, but the rest of the cast is also strong, from the always excellent Lennon as Mother, to Stevens as the gradually more determined Younger Brother, to Schapman as the dedicated and creative Tateh. There’s a strong ensemble all around, and the group numbers especially shine, from the Act 1 ending “Till We Reach That Day” to the stirring finale. It can be a little difficult to hear the spoken dialogue from the balcony, but the supertitles (designed by Touchette) are especially helpful in this regard. The singing, and the marvelous orchestra led by conductor Scott Schoonover, were especially evident. 

Technically, this production is more than impressive. It’s stunning, especially in terms of the set by Patrick Huber and the meticulously crafted costumes by Teresa Doggett. There’s also excellent lighting by Huber that helps set and maintain the tone of the story as it unfolds. 

Ragtime is another strong production from Union Avenue Opera. As a musical with the scope of an opera and a challenging vocal score, this is an especially appropriate choice for an opera company to produce. It works well as a showcase for a strong cast of excellent singers, and it’s worth seeing–and hearing–for yourself. 

Nyghél J. Byrd, Jazmine Olwalia
Photo by Dan Donovan Photography
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera is presenting Ragtime at Union Avenue Christian Church until August 26, 2023

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