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Ragtime, the Musical
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Mike Hodges
Stray Dog Theatre
August 3, 2017

Cast of Ragtime
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

“Ambitious” is a good word to describe Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Ragtime, just thinking about it. SDT isn’t a huge company, and their venue, the Tower Grove Abbey, isn’t that big either, but Ragtime is a big musical, in terms of casting, technical demands, and overall scope. This is one of those situations that might make someone wonder if a production like this would even work. Fortunately, however, this production does work, extremely well.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling, heavily plotted novel, the musical Ragtime is grand in scope, examining life in New York City and its suburbs in the early 20th Century, and the major societal changes that were going on during that time. There’s a lot of story here, and the writers deserve credit for fitting all the plots into a coherent and fascinating musical. Real historical figures such as Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro), Harry Houdini (Joseph Gutowski), J.P. Morgan (Gerry Love), Henry Ford (Jason Meyers), Evelyn Nesbit (Angela Bubash), and Booker T. Washington (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.) appear in the show interacting with the fictional characters and helping to set the scene and paint a picture of the times. The three main plots involve characters from different backgrounds living in a world of class and racial tensions, systemic racism and discrimination, as well as the rise of immigration, changes in technology and societal expectations, and more.  There’s an upper-class family in the rich, and very white, suburb of New Rochelle, featuring a somewhat obtuse but world exploring Father (Phil Leveling), a cynical Grandfather (Chuck Lavazzi), a pampered Mother (Kay Love) who is learning that the world isn’t as simple as she had thought, and the Little Boy, Edgar (Joe Webb).  Against the expectations of society, Mother takes in a young black woman, Sarah (Evan Addams) and her newborn son. The child’s father is ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Omega Jones), who wants to marry Sarah and has big dreams for their future as a family. There’s also Tateh (Jeffrey M. Wright), a Jewish immigrant artist from Latvia who arrives in New York with his daughter (Avery Smith) looking to make a new life in America. This is only the beginning, though. Complications occur for everyone involved, as Mother starts to see her values conflicting with those of her husband, Mother’s Younger Brother (Jon Bee) looks for a purpose in life, Coalhouse is bullied and harassed by the local fire chief (also Lavazzi) and his cronies who don’t like the idea of a black man with a fancy new car spending so much time in New Rochelle, and Tateh’s efforts to provide for his daughter take him from the streets of New York to Boston and beyond. Hopes and dreams are confronted with harsh reality, cruelty, and injustice, and life changes significantly for everyone involved.

This isn’t an easy story to describe without taking too much time and spoiling too much, but all the plots are woven together expertly, and the tension builds throughout the first act and explodes in the second. This is an intensely challenging, moving, and thought-provoking work, and SDT has staged it as well as I could imagine. The singing is first-rate, from the leads to the large and impressive ensemble. From the very first moment of the show, the ensemble and the music set the mood, along with the excellent band led by music director Jennifer Buchheit. The music is a mixture of traditional Broadway and turn of the 20th Century styles including, as is to be expected from the title of the play, a major ragtime influence.  The time and place are evoked well through means of David Blake’s expansive, multi-level set with platforms, staircases, and the look of steel-beam construction from the era. There are also meticulously detailed period costumes by Eileen Engel, and dramatic lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps transport the audience to this specific era and place in history. The only small issue I have with this production is that Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby (played by a doll) never actually ages despite the fact that several years go by in the course of the story.

The cast here is simply remarkable, with not a weak link among them. Everyone is ideally cast, and the character relationships are well-established and believable, with excellent chemistry in the ensemble and among the leads. Jones and Addams especially display a strong connection as Coalhouse and Sarah, with powerful voices as well. Their hopeful duet “Wheels of a Dream” in Act 1 is a particular highlight. Jones is also especially adept at portraying Coalhouse’s journey throughout the story, as the character goes through a great deal of profound changes. Also strong are Kay Love, in a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully sung turn as Mother; Wright, determined and engaging as Tateh; and Bee as a particularly earnest and determined Younger Brother. There are also some memorable performances from Lavazzi in two distinct roles–the jaded Grandpa and the bigoted, bullying fire chief–as well as Bubash as the perky singer and actress Evelyn Nesbit, who is the center of a national scandal; Kyro as the insistent activist Emma Goldman; and young Webb and Smith as the Little Boy and the Little Girl. Everyone is excellent, though. If I named all the strong performances, I would be listing the whole cast, because everyone is just that good. This is a show that demands a lot from its cast in terms of vocals, acting, and overall energy, and this cast delivers all that and more, from the very first note to the stirring Act 1 finale “Till We Reach That Day” to the Epilogue that ends the show.

I’m fairly sure this is the biggest show Stray Dog has ever done, and it’s simply stunning. The pacing is just right as well, not too rushed and not too slow. The moments of emotional resonance are given just the right amount of time, and all the players work together with precision and strength. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of a pivotal time in American history, but it also has a lot to say for today’s times as well. This is a truly brilliant production.

Kay Love, Evan Addams
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Ragtime at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 19, 2017.

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Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams
The Black Rep
April 24, 2015

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out their 2014-2015 season with Ahrens and Flaherty’s one-act musical Once On This Island.  While the show itself makes an effort at being inspirational, I find its message to be somewhat problematic. Still, with its vibrant staging, fine performances and dynamic choreography, this is a production that has a lot to offer.

When the show opens, the cast is gathered around to tell a story. A young girl (Daryiah Ja’Nnay Ford) is the focus, as the adults around her begin to tell a much-repeated tale, which is then acted out as the various villagers take the roles in the story. They tell of young Ti Moune (Ford), who as a child is carried away by a storm and left in a tree in a peasant village on a tropical island. There she is found by Mama Euralie (Linda Kennedy) and TonTon Julian (Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.), an older couple who raise the child as their own. Watched over by her adopted parents and the villagers, Ti Moune grows into a young woman (Ashley Ware Jenkins) who is eager to find her life’s purpose. She prays to the local gods Erzulie (Scheronda Gregory), Agwe (Billy Flood), Asaka (Jennifer Kelley) for help, and eventually finds her mission. This comes in the form of Daniel (Timmy Howard), the son of a wealthy hotel-owning family from the other side of the island, despite the sharp institutionalized divide between Daniel’s people, the grandes hommes (who are descended from French colonists), and Ti Moune’s people, who live as peasants separated from the benefits that the upper class grandes hommes share. When Daniel’s car crashes near Ti Moune’s village, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to care for him despite the objections and fears of her fellow villagers, even making a deal with the conniving death god Papa Ge (J. Samuel Davis) in order to keep Daniel safe. These events lead to a long-avoided confrontation between the peasants and the grandes hommes, with the results turning out not exactly as one might expect.

Without giving too much away, I need to say that I have serious issues with the message of this play, or at least one of its messages. The idea of needing something (or someone) to unite the divided people and confront the systemic injustice is good and important, but I had some problems with the portrayal of Ti Moune as a young woman who basically makes a man her cause, and particularly a man who doesn’t seem to really care that much about her. As dedicated as Ti Moune is to Daniel, I never got the idea that Daniel thinks of her as anything more than a curiosity. Although the show tries to portray a good outcome to all this in the finale (“Why We Tell the Story”), I’m not entirely sure I buy it.

There is some excellent music here, along with some very strong ensemble dancing choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams, and some wonderful lead performances. Jenkins, especially, is a marvel, with incredible stage presence and a striking air of utmost determination. She’s also a fantastic dancer and a strong singer. Kennedy and McNichols as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are also memorable and immensely likable. The island gods and supernatural figures are given strong portrayals as well, with Davis’s scheming Papa Ge a particular standout. Young Ford as Little Ti Moune also gives a vibrant performance. There are also some memorable songs and production numbers such as Jenkins’s “Waiting For Life”, Kelley’s “Mama Will Provide”, Gregory’s “The Human Heart” and the energetic finale.

Technically, this production is a visual wonder, although the sound quality leaves something to be desired. The band set-up at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, with the small band off to one side of the stage, makes it very easy for the music to drown out the singers on stage. Still, Tim Case’s atmospheric set, Luqman Salim’s colorful and detailed costumes, and Sean Savoie’s striking lighting all lend an evocative air to the production, adding to the overall fairy-tale like mood of the show.

I had never seen Once On This Island before, and as a show, I’m still not sure what I think of it. Overall, I would call this an excellent effort and a worthwhile production. Although I do have some issues with one of the show’s messages, the Black Rep’s fine cast and production values make this a memorable event.

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s production of Once On This Island is on stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 3rd, 2015.

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Seussical
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed and Choreographed by Dan Knechtges
The Muny
July 22, 2014

Abigail Isom, John Tartaglia Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Abigail Isom, John Tartaglia
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

The stories of Dr. Seuss are among the familiar, much loved staples of childhood reading for countless children around the world. Filled with clever rhymes, fantasy and wonder, these classic stories have entertained and inspired generations of children, and it’s not surprising that someone eventually had the idea to adapt them into a musical. The latest entry in the Muny’s current season, Seussical is a show that’s full of rhyme, song and whimsical flights of fancy, cast with a strong lineup of Muny veterans that bring the classic tales to life in a gentle  fashion that seems designed to appeal most to the youngest members of the Muny audience.

Paying musical tribute to the various works of the esteemed Dr. Seuss, this show focuses primarily on the Horton the Elephant stories, with elements from many other Seuss tales thrown in here and there.  Narrated by the illustrious Cat in the Hat (John Tartaglia), the story begins with a group of children celebrating the works of Seuss in the bouncy, memorable song “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think”. A little girl (Abigail Isom) is brought into the story as Jojo, the daughter of the Mayor of Whoville and his wife (Gary Glasgow, April Strelinger). The Whos live on a tiny planet contained in a speck of dust that is found by the earnest, dependable Horton (Stephen Wallem), who deposits the speck of dust on a clover and vows to keep it safe.  Horton’s neighbors in the Jungle of Nool are very skeptical and, led by the confrontational Sour Kangaroo (Liz Mikel), question his discovery.  Meanwhile in Whoville, Jojo is questioned by her parents and the other townspeople because her imagination is too vivid, so she’s sent to a military school led by the loudly belligerent General Genghis Khan Schmitz (James Anthony), in order to teach her discipline.  In the Jungle of Nool, insecure bird Gertrude McFuzz (Kirsten Wyatt) pines for Horton while the self-absorbed Mayzie La Bird (Julia Murney) flies off to enjoy a vacation while leaving Horton to sit on her egg.  From there, the story unfolds in fantastical Seuss fashion, as Horton and Jojo struggle to find their place in their worlds and the Cat in the Hat guides the audience through the whole journey, as narrator, commentator and occasional participant.

The first word that comes to my mind when thinking of this production is “colorful”. The design team, led by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan and costume designer Leon Dobkowski, has certainly brought a whole lot of color to the Muny stage, inspired by Seuss’s style but not directly copying it, especially in the costumes.  The stage is set up like a storybook wonderland, with a giant open book at center and surrounded by several giant-sized Dr. Seuss books with familiar titles such as Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat In the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, etc. The books and scenery are painted in a rainbow of bright colors, as are the inventive, simply styled costumes that suggest the characters rather than literally representing them. The birds, for instance, wear bright dresses with fluffy skirts, and many other characters are wearing brightly colored outfits with earpieces and/or tails or, in the case of Horton, a trunk to distinguish their species. The Whos are similarly colorful, and General Schmitz is decked out in garish purple camouflage. It’s a visual feast, and fitting for the bright, imaginative tone of the musical itself. The staging is also well imagined, using every inch of the Muny stage, and even involving the audience in some fun moments such as bouncing beach balls around and following the Cat as he wanders throughout the audience followed by his “news camera” on various occasions, including a fun Muny in-joke referencing Tartaglia’s last appearance at the Muny in Aladdin. Aside from the Cat and a few other more energetic moments, the show is mostly paced more gently and a lot less madcap than I had expected.  It’s a kids’ show first and foremost, and the staging makes that clear.

Performance-wise, the cast is in excellent form, with strong performances all around, supported with much enthusiasm by the Muny’s Youth Chorus.  Tartaglia brings a great deal of charm to the role of the Cat, serving as an ideal tour guide through the production, and playing various other characters as needed along the way.  He’s not nearly as over-the-top as he was as the Genie in Aladdin, although that is fitting for the more gentle tone of this production, and he leads the production with style from start to finish. Wallem is appropriately earnest and likable as Horton, and Isom turns in an especially impressive performance as the imaginative, determined Jojo, with a strong, clear voice and great stage presence. Her duet with Wallem on “Alone In the Universe” is a memorable moment.  Wyatt is also very strong as the quirky, lovesick Gertrude, and Murney has some great moments as the impossibly vain Mayzie. Anthony as the stubborn General Schmitz is also a stand-out, bringing a lot of energy to his song about “The Military” and leading his army (and the reluctant Jojo) into a ridiculous and futile battle using “Green Eggs and Ham” as a marching chant. Mikel also makes a strong impression as the bold, contrary Sour Kangaroo, and the ensemble seems to be enjoying every minute on stage.

There are several sweet moments in this show, such as the bouncy, recurring “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” theme and the lullaby “Solla Sollew”, and even some wit and irony in the many reprises of “How Lucky You Are”. There are a few moments here and there of humor and themes that adults will be able to appreciate more than kids, although everything is primarily geared toward the children.  I brought my 14-year-old son to this show, and he agreed that this production is probably best appreciated by kids a few years younger.  I think it’s most suited for kids ages 5-10, as well as anyone with a particular appreciation or nostalgia for Dr. Seuss’s stories.  It’s all very sweet, charming and colorful, with a strong cast and a very Seuss-esque aesthetic, although it isn’t quite as crazy or energetic as I had hoped. With a valuable message that encourages imagination and acceptance, and a catchy, memorable score, Seussical is definitely a worthwhile production especially for the very young.

Stephen Wallem (center) and Seussical cast Photo by Eric Woolsey The Muny

Stephen Wallem (center) and Seussical cast
Photo by Eric Woolsey
The Muny

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