SYNCOPATION IN QUEENS
by Cindy Pierre
published February 20, 2009
now playing Off Broadway at the Good Shepherd Methodist Church in
through February 22
In the 1960s, the Byrds sang in Turn! Turn! Turn! “to every thing, there is a season, a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” Although Ragtime didn't debut until 30 years later, the
words couldn't be more poignant for the exciting musical that, unfortunately, tries to cover every time and every thing in
one season. Yet, despite the material's cluttered storylines and lack of focus, Astoria
Performing Arts Center's (APAC) production of Ragtime is a sizzling good time.
Set in a modest, well-used space within a church, this collaboration
between Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) may feel claustrophobic when 20 or so of the cast members
are in a scene, but it's this same overcrowdedness that makes the show intimate and makes the audience feel like townsfolk. You'll not only experience the racial and economic melting pot themes that unfold onstage, but you'll also
get a sense of the physical melting pot that lights at least one match in anarchist Emma Goldman's (scene-stealing Carmel Javaher) political
Ragtime's plot, adapted
from E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same title, zigzags through many different places, historical figures and events, but three stories are
the most prominent: the tumultuous but sweet relationship between ragtime (the musical genre that predates jazz and is a mixture of African
syncopation and European classical music) musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (D. William Hughes) and Sarah (Janine Ayn Romano), a beautiful
admirer; a wasp family in New Rochelle, NY headed by matriarch Mother (Anna Lise Jensen); and Tateh (Mark Gerrard), a Latvian Jewish immigrant
trying to make a life for his little girl.
All the stories are compelling, but it's the production elements that immerse you into the era and the show. Take, for instance, David Withrow's clean and crisp period costumes. Mother's petticoats and corsets are especially striking, and serve as a stark contrast to Tateh's tattered
garments. Tom Wojtunik's sharp direction matches Ahren's often amusing lyrics to the action
down to the second. For example, during the “Ragtime” number when the company sings that there
were no “Negroes” at the time, the African-American cast members come streaming in to hilarious and ironic effect.
A smaller platform piece closer to the house seats and separate from
the stage serves at the vantage point for characters to connect with the audience emotionally.
It's a manipulative strategy, but an effective one where vocals soar and grandeur is manufactured. There's even wonderful surround sound created by cast members that are offstage singing with those that
are. Forget Bose. Apart from a silent doll that
doesn't pass off well as a baby – partly because of the lack of sound effects and partly because its face isn't concealed well enough – most
of the props and set pieces are impressive. There's a wonderful scene in which the cast members
build a Ford vehicle onstage, and later dismantle it to create a coffin.
The whole show is well-orchestrated, but some scenes set themselves
apart from the rest. While “Crime of the Century”, “Gettin' Ready Rag” and “Wheels of a Dream”
are electrifying numbers in Act One, “What a Game” is a funny and delightful display of Ryan Kasprzak's choreography teaming up with
Flaherty's music. The cast is teeming with talented singers and actors, but Javaher's Emma
Goldman, Hughes' Coalhouse, Romano's Sarah and Gerrard's Tateh are unforgettable.
In a time of economic depression and recession, Ragtime is timely in reminding us about
the wonder and opportunity that still exists in America. President Obama couldn't have paid
for a better foreign relations campaign. Despite all odds, folks like Tateh and Coalhouse can
still make a way as they're grasping for a better life and their pies in the sky. Sounds a bit
like “Yes, we can!”, doesn't it? For first-rate entertainment, history lessons and fun, it
shouldn't be too hard to overlook the plot problems. You'll be happy when you open your eyes
and heart to everything else.
cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com