Thursday, November 8, 2012
Theater review: Plaza Theatre Company achieves the impossible with ambitious, risky Ragtime
It raises the bar for community theater.
CLEBURNE Nine out of 10 times when I go see a production here in DFW that has already been reviewed by one of my outstanding theater critics on The COLUMN, I attend merely as a guest to observe the show. Not to review it, just to watch it. My critic has already done that. But then once in that very rare instance, a production so surpasses my expectations that I must put opinions and thoughts on paper. This happened after I saw this weekend’s Plaza Theatre Company production of Ragtime.
There are some musicals I have seen on Broadway that I have learned I should never see again. Why? Because that unique, special quality that made the original so powerful does not duplicate that magic later on in other versions.
Excellent example is Rent. I saw it on Broadway in June 1996 with the entire original cast. I was an emotional wreck by curtain call. Never has a score and a cast moved like that original company. I sobbed in my seat (as others did) as the audience left the theater. When I saw the first national tour at the Majestic Theatre here in Dallas, while it was quite good, it wasn’t the same. I realized why as the show went on. The original cast all started with the show since its workshop and off-Broadway run. But it was more because they were so connected to Rent’s composer Jonathan Larsen. They worked with him so intensely; he even shaped the score to fit their vocal power. They were there when he died the night before its off-Broadway opening night. So on stage you saw that pain, the rich subtext ebb from each cast member. They had Larsen’s life and soul pouring out of their work on that Nederlander stage. The tour cast did not. I would see several other tours of Rent and again, but they were not the same. I saw it again on Broadway years later. Just wasn’t the same. The closest it got to that emotional high that I had when I first saw it was when original cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp went on tour with it.
That is why I refuse to see any local production of Rent. It just won’t be the same as that original cast. They breathed, lived, and loved Larsen and mourned his death, and all that flowed out of their hearts, souls and performances. That’s just something that cannot be duplicated.
I saw the original Broadway production of Ragtime in 1998 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. In fact, it was the first musical to open this sparkling new theater in which they actually fused two existing, decaying theater houses and molded them into one. Most of the original cast was intact with the exception of Audra McDonald. It would be LaChanze portraying Sarah, who I thought was marvelous. Years later I would see her again on Broadway in The Color Purple where she originated the role of Celie. I told her at the stage door when we met and hugged, “You will win the Tony Award because you are that remarkable in this role.” She held me tightly and said, “You are too sweet.” Several months later she did indeed win the Tony Award!
The original Broadway Ragtime was spectacular, both visually and emotionally. An unheard cast of close to 75 members, a huge orchestra and jaw-dropping sets that left you speechless.
When the national tour came through Dallas a couple of years later, the production was greatly watered down, both in cast and especially in the design elements. I was so disappointed in the show - such a major let down. As my friend and I were leaving the Music Hall I said, “I’ll never see another version of Ragtime. The original was perfection and now they have changed it so much that it has lost that emotional and visual impact.” And I never have, until this past Saturday night.
When Plaza Theatre Company (PTC) announced they were producing Ragtime, I must be totally honest in that I was quite surprised and thought, “Ouch. That show is too massive and so adult in material. It’s not going to work there.” I had no intentions of seeing it because I felt they could not achieve the artistic beauty as the original. This is why I sent one of my critics to review it. But then I received a compassionate email from one the Artistic Directors to come see it. Not as a critic, but as an audience member. So I took a deep breath and accepted the invitation.
While there were some problems within the production, they can be overlooked because what Plaza Theatre Company has produced is a miraculous, emotional and powerful piece of musical theater.
Let’s get the problems/negative critiques out of the way first. This is a very difficult show to cast, in that you need a large cast of all ethnic types. Alas, this production has a much smaller cast of African Americans. It is very obvious in the opening number in which the upper class and immigrants are a bigger bunch while the cast of African Americans is much smaller.
I could easily see what Directors Aaron and Milette Siler were trying to achieve in the opening number. They duplicated the staging of the original version. Remember, PTC is in the round. Many scenes worked seamlessly and beautifully due to the sublime staging and blocking by the Silers in this production. But some key scenes lost their emotional impact due to sight line problems and too many bodies on stage. Like the opening number. Dead center is where the various “leaders” of the three classes would bump and confront each other. But due to the sea of bodies on that tiny stage, it was lost. Also the subtext for the final measures of the song in which all the ethnic groups mix to dance was lost due to the confines of the stage.
Another staging problem was the finale. As the newly mixed family walks off, the full cast lines up on either side to create a runway for the family to walk past. But that visual of a new American family was lost due to the cluster of bodies. You could not see them at all. Also, all the vocals going at full volume were aimed toward the exit so the majority of the house lost that vocal impact as well.
In my personal taste I think it would have worked so much better if the cast were separated in three mixed groups. Thus showing the subtext and theme of how America was indeed becoming a melting pot. Then place all three groups in the three major exit portals that surround the stage. This would have opened up the company so that their vocals surrounded the audience and we would for sure get the full belting ending that the song calls for. Thus you have only the new couple with their children alone dead center.
While the final moments for Coalhouse Walker were visually spot-on, with blood red lighting flashing, the sound effects for the guns came off too quiet and muffled. This moment should make the audience gasp and seriously feel that subtext.
Remember, we are seeing an honest, caring, loving, law-abiding black man who was turned into a rebel due to the hatred of whites. And yet he again trusts the words of both his black leader, Booker T. Washington, and his white friend, Father, only to be betrayed once more. The gun fire should be loud, ugly, and raw. You want the audience to hear and “feel” every bullet as they represent each racist’s slurs and attacks on Coalhouse. The audience should feel the horror and injustice being done here with those blood curdling gun shots. Sadly Plaza did not achieve that with the sound effect here for that.
There was also the emotional impact in the song “He Wanted to Say” that lost some of its subtext and translation due to the staging. It is Emma Goldman that is singing what Younger Brother is thinking and wanting to say. But sadly she was placed in an area that I had no idea where she was for several minutes. Was she backstage? I finally could see her head from the side far away from my seat at the other end of the theater. She needed to be placed much closer to the action on stage to give the lyric subtext its weight. Maybe bring in that metal unit used for several scenes and have her “stand” above the action to sing those powerful lyrics.
Because Ragtime is an epic journey, physically the musical travels all over the country - Atlantic City, New York, Harlem, a ship, a vaudeville theater, Ellis Island, and on and on. The Broadway version had glorious sets that moved, flew in from the rafters or whisked from the wings; never once did they let the pace slow or leave its audience confused.
PTC is an intimate, in-the-round space. So this had to be one of the greatest challenges for them to recreate on their stage. In a rare feat, Scenic Designer G. Aaron Siler succeeded 80% percent of the time. Stripping the bells and whistles actually elevated the material for the majority of the evening. But there were some stumbles along the way, such as the Morgan library. The original version had an elaborate set unit that resembled an Egyptian exhibit where Coalhouse held court. Plaza uses a myriad of projections to help the audience know where we are in the story. The image was of the Morgan library flashed on the scrim, but on stage there was a simple barrel and a wooden box. So it made you think they were outside. Also, by placing the cop and Father behind a tiny fence frame nearby was perplexing as to who was where.
Another tiny stumble in design was for Atlantic City. The original had this gorgeous sea side landscape with the actual boardwalk. Plaza had nothing on stage to reflect we were by the sea when Mother and Tateh meet again.
But the remaining scenic design worked beautifully. The creation of metal moving units to resemble everything from an attic, a Ford automobile, to baseball bleachers, to a grandstand was flawless. The scale unit for Evelyn Nesbit was quite colorful. The projections also worked flawlessly for so many scenes. I thought the idea of what was projected for Tateh’s “Movie” number in Act Two was a stroke of artistic beauty in design.
The creation for G. Aaron Siler’s lighting design was pristine, colorful and full of what I love to call “emotional lighting”. So many numbers had an array of light cues that changed hues, colors and focus that added so much to the evening. Thank god they didn’t go for what other community theaters do nowadays - use three or four gels, lights up, lights down and call it a day. You could clearly see Siler taking each song, each lyric and giving them an array of lighting cues and changes to bathe the emotion on stage in perfect harmony. I am always in constant awe and amazement on the many hats that Mr. Siler wears when he helms a production. He is a Director as well as the Lighting, Sound, and Scenic designer-and not one of those elements are lackluster. He gives it his all, resulting in outstanding theater.
Finally, I must commend and give high praise to the Silers’ decision as directors to keep some of the harsh, ugly language that was in the original. It is obvious, though, that there was some editing and toning down of the language. While I do understand they cater to the “family friendly” crowds, if you are going to do this kind of material, you must not edit or delete any of the language. The tragic fact is that those words are still being said today. It’s a great history lesson to show teens and others that, after all these years, racism still exists. Cutting some of the language actually hurt the emotional “kick in the gut” reactions that were originally there. It was confusing that in the scene where three white men forbid Coalhouse to drive through and call him the “N” word, a few scenes later the same men say “Negro”. It made no sense whatsoever. These men would never show respect like that to Coalhouse.
They needed to keep the vile language as it is a major part of their characterizations. I know it’s a horrible word, but it is truth and shows the evil cruelty of mankind towards other human beings.
Another edit that greatly harmed the subtext and reality of the lyrics was during the number, “What a Game”. Father takes Boy to a baseball game, away from the harsh reality of his home crumbling under all the racial issues that are circling their lives. But baseball is wholesome, all American and apple pie. While the number is comical, with men spitting, the disgusting truth starts pouring out in the lyrics. The men sitting around them spew and shout out disgusting racial slurs, curse words and language that should make the audience squirm uncomfortably in their seats. Think about it. Look at today’s recent sport games. Men are now beating each other up in the bleachers. There have even been deaths caused by these frenzied spectators. And the language they scream? Whoa!
It was obvious to me the lyrics had been altered here. The character Boy (NOTE: The family has no name, they are called mother, father, Boy, etc.) has a lyric at the end of the number that is very adult. But again you must think of the subtext here. Here is this innocent child surrounded by racists hurling despicable words and slurs, drooling like hungry wolves. The boy only says what he hears from the adults. He’s being taught what to say. The seed of hatred and racism is being planted and passed on to the next generation, and when is the best time to teach them this? When they are young. It’s a double-edged song. It has comical overtones but the dark, shameful truth of what the song really means cuts through like flesh being ripped open, forcing the audience to view the bloody mess they have created for their children. It was unfortunate that the directors did not keep the original lyrics here.
Nonetheless, I still give them a resounding standing ovation for keeping some of the language, because when those words came out, it caused the audience to pay attention and realize the truth. There were two rows of young kids across from me. I would watch them during some of those ignominious, adult laced scenes. They did not giggle, instead they showed on their faces great compassion and empathy. That is what theater should do - teach, educate and show our youth the truth so that they will learn. I greatly commend the directors for keeping some of the adult language.
It is now expected when you see a PTC show that you will see gorgeous, exquisite, refined costumes. Tina Barrus has already earned an armful of Column Awards for her costume designs that are impeccable, detailed, correct in period and always lavish. With Ragtime, she outdid herself. I cannot think of any other community theater that actually has the ensemble have so many costume changes. This was a large chorus and yet they kept coming out in totally different outfits. The fabrics, the color schemes and patterns, the hats, coats, petticoats, gowns, and on and on - you watched an extravagant costume parade that never ended! It was a luxurious spectacle of costume design that Ms. Barrus designed here. Artistic directors from other theaters need to drive to Cleburne and hire this woman. In every production I have seen at PTC, her costumes would put even some of the Equity costume designers to shame. There ain’t any rentals here folks. These are built from head to toe!
The direction and the staging (other than those minor hiccups mentioned earlier) by the Silers was truly remarkable. It was such a smart decision to direct their actors to be true to the material, the lyrics and the subtext. The majority of the cast was right on target with the material. There was no overacting or actors looking lost or not in the moment from the majority of the company. Again, with this being such an intimate space, the audience is inches away, thus we can see everything. The staging and blocking for so many of the scenes flowed with whispered movements of set pieces, never distracting. The pace was perfection. But where the Silers truly earned their accolades was in their casting.
Kudos must first go to the ensemble. They play an army of various characters from different backgrounds and they all stayed so committed to their characterizations. They may not have lines, but they were the backbone of this production and added layer upon layer of vocal finesse, beautiful acting craft and commitment to the production.
Delivering some exceptional work in PTC’s Ragtime included David Midkiff as Boy, Ecko Wilson as Booker T. Washington, Elicia Lynn Gantverg as Evelyn Nesbit, Eden Barrus as Girl (the role future Glee star Lea Michele originated and who I saw in), Jay Cornils as Grandfather, Doug Henry as Henry Ford, Auston McIntosh as Houdini, and Burl Proctor as J.P. Morgan.
Whitney Latrice Coulter, as Sarah’s friend, had a beautiful face that radiated warmth. You just could not take your eyes off this girl. She stood out from the ensemble because she took her minor role and turned it into a fully fleshed-out character. She was sassy and quite funny in the Harlem nightclub but when it came to the haunting spiritual, “Till We Reach That Day”, Coulter’s vocal riffs exposed the great pain of loss. She was stellar!
Heather Morill was superb as Emma Goldman. For some reason, both in New York and in the national tour, the actresses played her one tone of anger and a tad too butch. Morill still showed Goldman’s spine, made of steel, and her never ending quest for equality. She was strong, forceful and commanding when she had to be in a world run by men. But she also displayed a very touching, sweet, motherly side that had been missing in other actresses tackling the role. Morill had a rich soprano voice that made her solos glisten and glitter within the score.
Then there were the performers who delivered some of the best work that they have ever done. Plaza tends to double cast their shows, and I strongly feel that because the major principals were not for Ragtime, I truly believe that with this single casting aided the overall production greatly. Each actor was able to truly connect with the others; the chemistry was rich, detailed and very honest. I think that had they been double cast, the show would have suffered greatly. This was yet another reason why the Silers earned another round of ear deafening applause.
Dennis Yslas as Tateh steered away from the way the role tends to be played, that of a bitter, angry immigrant, acted almost one note. Yslas showed more of a quiet, subdued man who only wants what is best for his child. He did protect his child with great force in one scene, although the fight sequence was a bit too safe in its execution. The physical fight needed to be realistic and graphic, but being so close you could tell both Yslas and the other actor barely got close to each other with their fists; a minor quibble here. Yslas’ chemistry and connection to Eden Barrus, as his daughter, and later on with Daron Cockrell as Mother was simply splendid to watch unfold on stage. Yslas had a gorgeous tenor voice that delivered some of the most memorable solos of the evening, such as his part in “Journey On”, “Gliding”, and his comical number, “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc”. Yslas and Cockrell had one of the outstanding, marvelous duets within the score with “Our Children”. Both voices crested on each other, soprano and tenor, with perfect crescendos and musicality. Yslas delivered superior work here.
JaceSon P. Barrus and Daron Cockrell have sort of become the Lunt / Fontanne, Jeanette McDonald / Nelson Eddy of Plaza Theatre Company. It seems that in at least one show a season they are cast as a couple. Last season it was Annie Get Your Gun, this season they are Father and Mother in Ragtime. And while they were magnificent as usual, in Ragtime they delivered their most stunning work that I have seen either one of them do.
Ms. Cockrell has yet to have a weak performance in any production that I have seen her perform in. But for Ragtime, she delivered her finest work ever, both as an actress and singer. She peeled layer after layer into the heart and subtext of Mother, reaching in and showing all her love, compassion, pain, loss, confusion, and her place both within her marriage and society. I’ve never seen Cockrell’s dramatic craft so I was quite surprised how remarkable she was in using her tools of acting craft to chisel out such a heart-gripping characterization. Cockrell has one of the BEST, and I mean BEST, soprano voices within the entire DFW theater community. She never cracks. She always keeps that vibrato in control. Some sopranos veer off course with their vibrato, causing them to sound like a nightingale stuck on spin cycle in a washing machine. Not Cockrell. Every solo in Ragtime, she delivered her all. She belted to the skies when needed, and then subsided to a whisper like a feather gliding in the air. Her finest vocal moment came in the 11:00 o’clock number,“Back to Before”. Here Cockrell shred open her pain and loss, letting each lyric stand on its own, and then belted to the very end of the last note. Directors, take note. You need to see this phenomenal talent wrapped up in a physically beautiful and elegant actress!
JaceSon P. Barrus also avoided the one-tone characterization that seems to stay stuck like Velcro when it comes to the role of Father. Mark Jacoby, who originated the role, played him on one level, as an angry, bombastic father. Barrus avoided this entirely and instead created a much richer, complex, deeply moving character. He showed he clearly loves his wife and child, and country for that matter. But when the normality of his life became jumbled and twisted, Barrus showed, through riveting acting choices, Father’s pain, confusion, and perplexity with vivid, raw honesty. His scenes with Cockrell and Midkiff, as his son, will touch your heart deeply. But the final scene with Coalhouse Walker, played by Major Attaway, and his wife (Cockrell) was where Barrus showed layers of dramatic work that I never knew he had nor have seen in the past from this talented actor. He choked on his tears when he says goodbye to his wife in the final scene where they fight over everything. We saw vividly in Barrus’s face, eyes, and subtext that Father knows his marriage is over. It was gripping to watch. When he meets Coalhouse in the Morgan library at the end, we see a white man finally understanding the battle for equality and how he did not help in that cause. Barrus created a marvelous arc that in the past had never been there. Barrus brought to the Plaza stage an extraordinary performance that was his best to date.
The chemistry and subtext between Cockrell and Barrus was the best of the entire evening. They were in perfect sync with each other’s arcs and purpose. They matched each other in both vocal and acting choices on where to take their characters and their marriage. It was very noteworthy to watch these two deliver such great work.
Major Attaway as Coalhouse and Chimberly Carter-Byrom as Sarah became the stars of Plaza’s Ragtime. Their performances were the heart and soul of this production.
Attaway possessed a rich, deep speaking voice that had authority and command. He gave Coalhouse great respect and dignity. Attaway had a captivating stage presence and when he appeared on stage, all eyes zeroed in on him. He gave the character’s arc new levels of humanity and compassion. But when Coalhouse turns into the rebel, Attaway gripped that horrifying anger in him with controlled fury that was riveting. Then there’s his singing voice, a thunderous baritone that could fill Texas Stadium. His vibrato was rich and controlled. Many of his solos were show stoppers but it was when he sang. “Make Them Hear You” that he floored you. It was a magnificent solo that reminded me how talented this DFW theater community is. Attaway delivered a tour de force performance.
Carter-Byrom was the sweet lioness in comparison to Attaway’s regal lion. An exquisite looking woman, she could melt the ice that covers the Arctic lands with just one glance. She too, like Attaway, discovered new layers within her characterization. Sarah is a quiet, peaceful girl who almost lost her child. Carter-Byrom displayed compelling honesty with the decisions she made as a wife and mother. She never wavered off her arc but cemented her soul and heart into Sarah. I so wish though that what happens to Sarah at the Presidential rally was staged with more graphic reality. It cheapens the moment for the audience of a horrific but true to life situation that has befallen so many minorities over the years. It was not Carter-Byrom’s fault; she reacted exactly what the moment called for. Had it been staged with much more reality, the audience would have reacted much more emotionally to it. As with Attaway, Carter-Byrom also had a resplendent singing voice. Hers was an ethereal, gospel like soprano voice that reached deep into the audience’s hearts. Her solo, “Your Daddy’s Son”, was textured in rich subtext thanks to Carter-Byrom’s vocals. Her duet with Attaway on “Wheels of a Dream” was a show stopping number thanks to these two talented performers. These two deliver star making performances that are not to be missed!
Plaza Theater Company is that rare theater that is just not community theater. They don’t approach their work that way. They work to the bone to elevate their work to artistic beauty that equals a professional level. And each season they do just that. They do advertise that they are a “family friendly” theater company. Thus they do produce productions that cater to that demographic. They bring out the old tried and true musicals (They did Fiddler on The Roof this season) and sweet comedies that won’t offend (like Harvey this season as well).
Other theater companies also stick to those old, decaying warhorse musicals that have been done so many times that sadly I just cannot sit through them one more time. I just can’t. But hey, those musicals pack the audiences in every time. So I know I’m in the minority on this opinion. Audiences love those classics. Sorry, for me they just don’t whet my appetite.
But here’s where Plaza separates itself from the pack. They produce at least one production to whet their artistic palette, and in the process allows their audiences to open their minds to new material. They take a great artistic and financial risk doing this each season. But by doing this, they rise above the rest for taking those artistic risks and ending up with critically acclaimed productions and packed houses.
They did Aida, an interracial love story set to pop/rock music, three years ago. The next season it was Into the Woods, a sophisticated Sondheim musical with a very complicated score. Both musicals earned them back to back COLUMN Awards for Best Musical.
With Ragtime they have not only risen above the pack, they have now surpassed them. I’m sure no other community theater would take on such an artistic and financial risk in trying to mount this mammoth, epic musical that has a humongous cast, tons of scene changes, endless costumes, and a score that demands not just top-notch singers but brilliant actors as well. Then add a storyline with atrocious racism!
What community theater would take on that herculean challenge? Since Ragtime has been available for other theater companies to produce, only one theater company, Irving’s Lyric Stage, took up the challenge - and they were Equity!
Plaza has once again achieved the impossible with their mounting of Ragtime. They have produced a musical that everyone cannot miss, including younger audiences. It will teach them a lot of our history and that how some things have not changed after all these years.
But also it is a chance to see a community theater raise the artistic bar. See for yourself how a theater company is willing to take such an artistic risk in producing more challenging theater. The end result is a stirring, glorious crowning achievement in Plaza’s crown of already of glistening, critically acclaimed successes.
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