Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Theater review: Ragtime at Plaza Theatre Company
Ragtime emphasizes the historically popular music genre, but also stands for so much more.
CLEBURNE Ragtime is more than a style of music. It is a desire for growth, something different, something better, or taking a chance for something new. Plaza Theatre Company certainly achieves this with Ragtime.
More commonly known as an upbeat style of music, Ragtime was largely made popular by Scott Joplin. The main characteristic of ragtime music is syncopated, upbeat rhythm. Ragtime music was at its peak popularity between 1897 and 1918. This style of music is believed to have begun as music for the bordello districts in the African American communities of New Orleans and St. Louis and later became popular sheet music for the piano. Ragtime started to become less popular about 1917, when jazz music gained in popularity.
With songs and music that include “Ragtime,” “Goodbye My Love,” “Journey On,” “Success,” “Getting Ready Rag,” “Nothing Like the City,” “Your Daddy’s Son,” “Till We Reach That Day,” “Back to Before,” “Make Them Hear You” and so many more, performed by some very talented acting and vocals, Ragtime brings not just an understating of the historical and cultural significance of the music and culture of the time period; it also brings a living experience of all that is Ragtime.
This time in American history was known as The Progressive Era. It was a period of social activism and political reform. This was a time for cultural conflict and change in the way that cultural and ethnic groups were interacting. This was a time for change in the social structures of many families, with women taking a more visible role in decision making and for women’s suffrage. This was also a time of change and conflict between factory and mill workers and the industrialists of the age.
The elements of change were embodied in historical figures such as Admiral Perry, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Houdini, Emma Goldman, and the fictional characters of Ragtime Mother, Father, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Sarah, Tetah and the myriad of supporting characters that brings this production to life, making the story more than a historical footnote. By making it into a musical, it added vitality so that it could be felt and experienced.
Ragtime, currently playing at Plaza Theatre Company in Cleburne, tells the story of three ethnic groups in the early 1900s. Each group is represented by a primary character with several supporting characters. The white, upper class family is represented by Mother, played by Daron Cockerell. The main character portraying the Eastern European and Jewish immigrants is Tateh, a recent Jewish Immigrant from Latvia, played by Dennis Yslas. The lead character for the African Americans is Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician, played by Major Attaway.
Having never before attended a production at Plaza Theatre, but knowing the large scope of the cast and story line of Ragtime, I was surprised to see what I initially thought to be a space too small to support the production. The theatre performance space was “in the round,” which may provide unique challenges for any production. But it turned out to be a very visually successful way of presenting this story.
The interior walls of the theatre had been painted with murals depicting patriotic symbols apparently designed to create the patriotic setting and representation for what was important to so many immigrants and other cultural groups during that time — the belief that everything was possible in America, the belief life was better in America and the belief that everyone was equal in America. Looking at the ceiling, I was amazed to see so many stage lights with various colors. My first thought was of a Christmas tree. As I was watching the performance, it became very apparent that the abundance of lighting was needed and well used to light the many areas of activity and locations in the show as well as enhance the moods of the many scenes.
At the conclusion of the curtain speech, the audience was told that, with theatre in the round, all of the performance space is used. This was certainly proven true when the lights went down, then came back up with every conceivable entrance being used to bring almost the entire cast on stage for the opening scene. It seemed as if all characters involved in each cultural group or as a peripheral character were using the performance space. This was both visually stunning and an introduction as to how Directors G. Aaron and Milette Siler were going to involve such a large cast.
If you accept the saying “Clothing makes the man, woman or character," then Costume Designer Tina Barrus had a very successful hand in creating the characters. Barrus did an amazing job with costume design and its use for this show. Each main character, cultural group and ensemble, when on stage, was dressed and presented as someone that might have walked out of a time machine and directly onto this set. This was consistent throughout the show and included often overlooked items such as shoes and boots, lacing, hair styles and hats. This was such a highlight of the show, I was curious how Barrus was able to find or create so much of these creations.
The performing space was large enough to include almost all of the cast members at times throughout the production. However, at times it seemed that the space was too large to hear some of the actors. Since the stage was intimate in size, I could see that many of the actors were wearing wireless microphones. When the microphones worked and the actor at least somewhat projected, they could be heard very well by the audience.
Unfortunately, I think that several of the actors relied too heavily on the microphones and technology to be heard by the audience. It became more noticeable when the sound system had a glitch or when an actor did not project, making it more difficult to hear a song or dialogue. This was the case, a few times, with Little Brother, played by Jonathan Metting, and Evelyn, played by Elicia Lynn Gantverg, who both had wonderful voices when they could be heard. Unfortunately, both may have overly relied on technology rather than fully trusting their very talented voices. On the other hand, Attwell, Jaceson Barrus, Cockerell, Carter-Byrom, Wilson, Yslas, Henry, Morrill, and Coulter all had rich and powerful voices that filled the space with music that might make you want to close your eyes and just listen. But I would highly recommend against that because you would not want to miss any of the action on stage.
In order to maximize all useable space and provide more depth to the production, a scrim had been stretched across an open area in one corner of the theatre which provided an additional entrance and exit area. There was also a scrim on which was projected visuals that depicted various scenes and additionally used to provide an area where actors could be back-lit for special effects. I really liked this idea as it allowed more of the story to be shared with an added dimension. Unfortunately, because of the angles of the seating and the scrim, along with actors sometimes standing in the sightline of the audience, the effect could not always be fully seen by all of the audience. In an early scene, Houdini was behind the scrim performing a scene. The only way that I could tell this was happening was when I heard his voice coming from that direction. Later in the performance Sarah was behind the scrim, back-lit, responding to Coalhouse who was on stage at the time.
With limited space in the performance area, especially with so many actors on stage most of the time, there was a need for the props to be easily moved on and off stage as needed. Many of the moveable set pieces and props were constructed to be representational. In most cases this worked well. With a little imagination, we could see the ship as it left dock. We could also see how proud Coalhouse was in his new Model-T Ford. The one set piece that did not seem to work for me was a piece central to several scenes - the piano. The piano was created to be representational with a metal frame and a glass top where the keyboard would be. This design provided visual access for the audience to see Coalhouse playing the piano and we could enjoy watching the actor animated as his fingers played across the glass top that was the keyboard. While I thoroughly enjoyed the visibility of the musician enjoying his instrument as he played ragtime, I was distracted and the illusion was broken when Coalhouse draped his jacket over the top of the piano frame, causing the jacket to be hanging in what would have been the inside of the piano. Theatre is all about believing the illusion.
It has been said that correctly casting a show can be the biggest challenge. The sets, props and costumes all create the atmosphere. However, the right actors and talent can bring the environment to life. The acting and vocal choices made by Directors G. Aaron and Milette Siler were spot on.
Major Attaway, as Coalhouse, brought a balance of inner turmoil, rich booming vocals and the right amount of conflict and conviction for each scene. During the song “Getting Ready Rag,” we watched Coalhouse and friends excited as he makes the decision to find Sarah and convince her to take him back.
Consistently throughout the performance, we experienced through his voice and face his determination to win back Sarah, improve his life, and mourn and search for justice in an imperfect world. In each song, Attaway always included the audience with the very real emotions of the music and lyrics as each scenes progressed.
Father, played by Jaceson Barrus, came across as entitled, sometimes aloof, and at times either oblivious or naïve to the world and changes around him. Barrus handled this well with an acting style that allowed us to see his frustration and confusion on how to adapt to the changing circumstances. As we watch Father leave Mother and the family for his year long trip with Admiral Perry, Barrus showed us boyish enthusiasm that appeared clueless to how his actions affected those around him. His acting choices worked consistently well throughout the show. One of his most poignant and effective moments for me was when Father was with Coalhouse in the library. After initially refusing to interact as equals just before Coalhouse is to leave the library Father reaches out his hand and meets him as an equal.
Daron Cockerell, as Mother, was eloquent, poised and always proper, from the opening scene to the closing scene, as we experience with Mother the changes in her life. At the beginning of the show she seemed almost too delicate. The first scene in which we were treated to her incredible voice was when she was at the dock saying goodbye to Father as he blithely leaves her and the family for a year to travel with Admiral Perry to the Arctic. In this scene we hear the emotional longing, love and frustration. As the story progressed Cockerell allowed us to share in the transformation of this seemingly too delicate woman to a wife, mother, business person and individual that has had to change and adapt as circumstances were forced on her. When she sang “Back to Before,” she poured her heart out to the audience. Her vocals and acting style mesmerized the audience and kept me always engaged.
Jonathan Metting, as Younger Brother, presented a character who was trying to find himself through the changing times. Younger Brother is initially obsessed with Evelyn. After meeting Evelyn, he learns how shallow she is and is disappointed. Later, he attaches himself to Coalhouse and his cause. From scene to scene, Metting convincingly brought a character that was lost and searching. Unfortunately, I was not always able to hear Metting during his songs.
Sarah, played by Chimberly Carter-Byrom, is the love interest and mother of Coalhouse’s son. It is this character that is integral in entwining the lives of the suburbanites with that of the African Americans. Carter-Byrom presented to us a character that was resolute in her convictions and dedication. She brings solid and clear choices to a character that determined her course of action. During the scene in which she and Coalhouse meet, Carter-Byrom successfully and playfully shows the shy and teen-ager-in-love side of Sarah that is different than the resolute Sarah that the audience sees throughout most of the show.
Ecko Wilson, as Booker T. Washington, brought the audience a character that was a good representation of the historical perspective of this character. Wilson portrayed Washington as a person that was concerned about social injustice and inequality on a grander scale. Washington at times appeared above the everyday concerns and more concerned that one person’s search for justice not affect the grander gains he made over the years. In one scene, Washington uses the line “my people.” Rather than the expected “our people.” This choice of phrasing helped signify the internal and external conflict that was developing, as Washington had to decide whether to be involved or how to be involved in Coalhouse’s search for justice. The acting choices made by Wilson in this portrayal were solid and added to the intricacies of the conflict.
Dennis Yslas, as Tateh, was inspiring. Throughout the show I was impressed with Tateh’s mannerisms, characterizations, accent, devotion to his daughter and willingness to adapt and change with the circumstances. This was superbly demonstrated from the first scene as they arrive in New York as Jewish Immigrants to his transformation as Baron, the movie director and producer in the closing scenes. The journey that Islas took us on as Tateh transformed in each scene, from a new immigrant trying to provide for his daughter to the successful movie maker, was delightful to watch.
Burl Proctor as J.P. Morgan and Judge, and Doug Henry as Henry Ford and Stanford White, brought a combination of comedy, timing, and mature acting experience to each character, and made each character distinct and fun to watch. Proctor and Henry played well together as the rich industrialists.
Heather Morrill, as Emma Goldman, was dynamic in her portrayal of this character. Goldman is a symbol of the force of change for the working conditions and social justice of the time. I enjoyed seeing the complex layers of a character that was in some scenes harsh and abrasive, while in others tender and kind. This layering and blending of the actions and emotions worked well. Elicia Lynn Gantverg, as Evelyn, was delightful. Her presentation of the controversial character Evelyn was almost too sweet and nice. Her costumes were designed to make this character at least appear flirtatious.
Luke Hunt, who played the three characters Admiral Perry, Tateh’s Customer and Willie Conklin, ably handled each with distinct mannerisms for each character, making each believable. Had I not read in the playbill that this one actor played three roles, I would have thought it was three different actors.
Whitney Latrice Coulter, as Sarah’s Friend, brought a high level of energy and vocals that kept you focused on her while she was on stage. Her vocals and energy in every scene in which she was in left you wanting to see more of her.
The ensemble really should also be recognized and acknowledged for the acting and vocal additions to the performance. There is a saying that it is best not to share the stage with animals or little children as either will steal the scene. The children in this show were remarkable in their attention to their character, lines, songs and stage presence. The crowd scenes, street scenes, and scenes in Atlantic City would not have been as successful without the coordinated effort of the entire ensemble. Watching the various crowd scenes, I found myself looking at the individuals on stage, noting their costumes, whether they were singing and whether they were always in character. They were all fun to watch.
Just before the opening of the performance, one of the producers gave the traditional curtain speech in which she explained that Ragtime was a labor of love and a show that they had planned for over a year. She stated that this was a story they felt needed to be told even if it was a show that may be outside of their more traditional family style. It may have been outside of their traditional direction, but the time that was invested in the design, casting, costuming, rehearsing and ultimately performing Plaza Theatre’s Ragtime was a bet that really paid off.
The show was highly visual, entertaining and engaging. The acting and superb vocals will bring you into the life and stories on this important and moving time of transition in the history of our country.
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