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The Play-Goer: 2nd Star Productions’ Ragtime

2nd Star’s production has it all: unique characters, intertwining stories and beautiful music

photo by Nate Jackson

       Ragtime began as a novel. Next, E. L. Doctorow’s historical novel published in 1975, was made into a movie.  In 1998, it opened as a Broadway musical with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Set at the turn of the century, it follows the lives of three sets of people: an upper-class white family represented by Mother (Heather McMunigal); an African-American community represented by Coalhouse Walker (Carl Williams); and Jewish immigrant Tateh (Stephen Yednock).

         With its unique characters, intertwining stories and beautiful music, Ragtime is an ambitious production that threatens to overwhelm any company without the talent, resources and diversity to do it justice.

         Fortunately, 2nd Star Productions not only has all three in abundance, but also a gem of a directorial debut from Nathan Bowen. His less-is-more staging puts the spotlight squarely on the story rather than oversaturating the stage — and the pace — with backdrops and unwieldy period furniture. Too much can rob a large-scale production of its heart. This production has plenty of heart.

         All of Bowen’s diverse cast of 36 people of all ages have invested themselves in their character — sometimes several characters — so when the big choral numbers are sung and danced, the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Following Anwar Thomas’ snappy yet graceful choreography, every big number is gorgeous to watch. Thanks to the tight musical direction of Emily Sergo, every word is enunciated, every line sung beautifully, every harmony reaching the ceiling.

         This solid ensemble serves as a base for some moving performances.

         As Mother, McMunigal is the heart and moral center of the show, refusing to follow the bigoted dictates of the time when it comes to caring for another human being. McMunigal’s gorgeous soprano voice and naturalness on stage are matched by a subtle humor that gives Mother three dimensionality. She is an absolute joy to watch. When Mother discovers an abandoned child, her What Kind of Woman is filled all at once with disgust and anger. Yet McMunigal is such a good actor that her character’s concern for the child, and its unknown mother, also shows. When she later sings Back to Before, an aching solo in which she declares her independence from a time when “I had dreams, I let you dream them for me,” her sorrow at the end of the relationship is drowned by her newfound strength. Her wonderful performance anchors the show.

         As Coalhouse Walker, the African-American musician who fathers a child and steps up to be the father he ought to be, Carl Williams is simply terrific. Williams takes Coalhouse from happy-go-lucky musician to responsible husband and father, showing us the depth of feeling when a man matures, and even deeper feelings when that man must deal with the violence and hatred others throw at him because of the color of his skin. Williams’ Coalhouse never lets their hate control his actions or emotions. Wheels of a Dream, his duet with Sarah (Ashley Lyles), the mother of his son, is as happy and lively as his Coalhouse’s Soliloquy is dark.

         Lyles’ Your Daddy’s Son is also worthy of mention, a beautifully sung paean to the man who left her, sung to the baby she abandoned. Both performances are superb.

         As Tateh, the Jewish immigrant making his way to the U.S., Stephen Yednock is riveting. He comes on as a barrel of laughs but soon shows the depth of his anger and fear as he vows to protect his young daughter from the ills of American society. Yednock uses his big powerful voice to great effect on A Shtetl Is Amereke, as he and other immigrants enter the country. His empathy is also on display on Gliding, as he reassures his daughter that all will be fine. His is a demonstrative and sensitive performance.

         Other performances contribute greatly, from Jason Beall as Younger Brother, who risks all to take on the cause of civil rights … to Chase Nester as the Little Boy … E. Lee Nicol as Father … and a mélange of historical characters brightly played, including Brad Eaton as Booker T. Washington, Davis Wooden-Klebanoff as Harry Houdini, Cara Pellegrino as Emma Goldman, Eric Meadows as J.P. Morgan … and many more.

         All this happens with nary a set change. Bowen opting instead to use a simple yet flexible set of metal stairs and platforms to evoke different locations. The wonderful flow of the production is thus never stemmed, and the brisk pace maintained. Mary Wakefield and Alyssa Wellman House have designed colorful costumes that are not only evocative of the time but also perfect for each character.

         Ragtime is an honest show, and some language and situations will be intense. But don’t let that keep you away. The heart of 2nd Star’s Ragtime is the human condition, brought to life by a diverse and multi-talented cast who invest their all into each and every character. This one is special.

Stage manager: Joanne Wilson. Set designer: Jane Wingard. Lighting designer: Garrett Hyde

FSa 8pm, Su 3pm thru June 30 plus June 30 3pm (about 2 hours 40 minutes with one intermission) at Bowie Playhouse, $22 w/discounts, rsvp: www.2ndstarproductions.com.