Frank Mastrone

Only in America

Review of Ragtime, The Musical, Music Theater of Connecticut

Terrence McNally packs much history and drama into the Book for Ragtime, The Musical, adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. And in its current production, director Kevin Connors dauntlessly packs a cast of fifteen and two pianists onto the small stage at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk to deliver a show that proves that even epic musicals can be scaled down and work well. And that’s largely due to Jessie Lizotte’s multilayered set.

The MTC show’s vitality is powerful and the diverse cast—depicting interlocking stories of New Rochelle WASPs, Harlem-based African Americans, and recent Jewish immigrants—puts across a range of songs, from the jaunty to the heart-wrenching, with great brio. As musical drama, Ragtime, which debuted in the late 1990s, is better in its parts than as a whole, as the story’s melodrama sits oddly within its sprawling treatment of early twentieth-century hot topics, and its politics, while generally progressive, feel tainted by a quaint neoliberalism.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), Sarah’s Friend (Kanova Latrice Johnson) in MTC Mainstage’s  Ragtime  (photos by Joe Landry) (rear: David Wolfson, conductor/music director, and Mark Ceppetelli, second piano)

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), Sarah’s Friend (Kanova Latrice Johnson) in MTC Mainstage’s Ragtime (photos by Joe Landry) (rear: David Wolfson, conductor/music director, and Mark Ceppetelli, second piano)

Ragtime, the African American musical form that exploded into popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century, becomes both a style and theme: the music in the air compels new feelings,  new relations, new possibilities. For the three main groups of characters, the new century has much to offer—not least the new Model T Ford and motion pictures—and ragtime, with its strong syncopation and innovative flair, is the soundtrack to the era, as detailed by the company in “New Music.”

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), center, and the cast of  Ragtime

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), center, and the cast of Ragtime

With Music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical is at its best when giving us glimpses of colorful material that, while entertaining, is largely for purposes of historical exposition. The entire score is ably rendered on twin pianos by conductor/music director David Wolfson and second pianist Mark Cepperelli, featuring grand set-pieces such as “Crime of the Century,” about the early tabloid sensation/showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Jessica Molly Schwartz) whose jealous lover killed another man over her, or “Henry Ford,” in which the famed inventor and businessman, played by Jeff Gurner, details his methods, or, in Act Two, when Jewish immigrant Tateh (Frank Mastrone), now styled as film impresario Baron Ashkenazy, sets forth the rationale of “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”, or when Younger Brother (Jacob Sundlie), from the New Rochelle family, gushes over “The Night Emma Goldman Spoke at Union Square”—Goldman, the fierce anarchist, is played with gutsy force by Mia Scarpa. These songs do much to maintain Doctorow’s effort to incorporate news stories and such newsworthy individuals as escape artist Harry Houdini (Christian Cardozo), African-American intellectual Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), and tycoon J. P. Morgan (Bill Nabel) into a narrative of how the New York area could both empower ambition and destroy dreams.

Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt)

Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt)

McNally’s plot centers on Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt), as she’s the lynchpin that brings together the immigrant story and the African American story. As a conscientious society lady, Pratt is a high caliber asset of the show, showing both a wifely detachment from her paternalistic husband (Dennis Holland) and a willingness to follow the burgeoning attachments that form when she lets them. Her heartfelt rendition of “Back to Before” is a highpoint of Act 2 and she seems born for the period costumes by Diane Vanderkroef.

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross)

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross)

Finding an abandoned black child in her garden, Mother takes in the orphan and eventually Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), the child’s distressed mother, as well, then abets the child’s father, ragtime virtuoso Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew) as he pays courtship. That’s the uplifting story of Act 1, brought to rapturous realization in the duet between Ross and Andrew, “Wheels of a Dream,” that feels like an Act 1 curtain but isn’t. Additional elements are Mother’s dignified flirtation with Tateh as both, with their respective children—charmingly enacted by Ari Zimmer and Ryan Ryan (or Hannah Pressman)—take a train out of New York. The anti-immigrant hostility of the times—and ours—creates a struggle for Tateh while the virulent racism endemic to the U.S. delivers an insult to Coalhouse through the destruction of his prized Model T. by volunteer firemen.

Tateh (Frank Mastrone) and his daughter (Hannah Pressman)

Tateh (Frank Mastrone) and his daughter (Hannah Pressman)

As Act 2 opens, newly radicalized Younger Brother, a fireworks manufacturer, is helping Coalhouse and his followers to blow up things in a wave of anti-capitalist, antiracist terrorism. The carnage is offstage, which lets us overlook Coalhouse’s violence, while a jarring act of violence aimed at Sarah threatens to derail the busy story. As Sarah, Soara-Joye Ross delivers Act 1’s “Your Daddy’s Son” with such incredible power that we may well be disappointed to learn what the plot has in store for her. So it goes. The story drives toward its benign vision of children—white and black, Jew and gentile—playing together agreeably, though the fact that the nonwhite parents are looking on from heaven might give us pause.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew)

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew)

As Coalhouse, Ezekiel Andrew plays both pride and humility that become righteous indignation. He has great energy and a big voice, which helps greatly in a production where sometimes the pianos overpower the singers—not helped (when I attended) by some issues with the mics that created static and seemed to lose some singers in the big choral numbers. Soara-Joye Ross and Juliet Lambert Pratt add greatly to the vocal strengths on hand, with Kanova Latrice Johnson delivering Act 1’s impassioned closer, “Till We Reach That Day.” Frank Mastrone is more endearing as Baron Ashkenazy than as Tateh whose beard only serves to look remarkably fake. Jessica Molly Schwartz does well with an ironic rendering of Evelyn Nesbitt’s obvious cheesecake function, and Broadway veteran Bill Nabel adds the requisite patrician sangfroid to J.P. Morgan, even when his beloved library is being held for ransom. As Booker T. Washington, Brian Demar Jones has plenty of panache, and Christian Cardozo’s Houdini, we might imagine, would like to escape into a show where he’s something more than a famous Italian American.

Father (Dennis Holland), seated, and his son (Ari Zimmer) and the male cast of  Ragtime

Father (Dennis Holland), seated, and his son (Ari Zimmer) and the male cast of Ragtime

Finally, a word about Dennis Holland as Father. This is a role that could easily be a joke. One moment he’s off to the North Pole with Robert Peary, then he’s receiving a frosty welcome to his home, now a nursery, where an African American couple he never met is plying ragtime and romance in the parlor; later, he has to make man-to-man chat with Coalhouse while playing well-meaning hostage, but not before he takes his son out to a ballgame for some filial bonding, only to find it’s overrun by the kind of crass American types our culture never tires of caricaturing (the song, “What a Game,” is a moment of light fun in the overwrought Act 2). Ultimately, Father goes down with the Lusitania! Through it all Holland maintains the thoughtful dignity of someone who just doesn’t get it yet knows there is something to get. It’s just that, for a little while at least, he thought he had it. All. It’s a nicely rendered character-turn in a show more concerned with songs than characterization.

Once again, MTC’s Kevin Connors shows what can be done on a small-scale with shows that could easily overwhelm a less resourceful director. His love for theater shows in every aspect of this involving Ragtime. The intimacy of staging makes this show of many moving parts—there’s even a makeshift Model T involved—even more moving.

 

Ragtime, The Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by David Wolfson

Scenic Design: Jessie Lizotte; Lighting and Projection Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Props Design: Merrie Deitch; Wig Design: Will Doughty; Fight Choreographer: Dan O’Driscoll; Production Assistant: Charlie Zuckerman; Musical Staging: Chris McNiff; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Musicians: David Wolfson, conductor/piano; Mark Ceppetelli, second piano

Cast: Ezekiel Andrews; Christian Cardozo; Ari Frimmer; Jeff Gurner; Dennis Holland; Kanova Latrice Johnson; Brian Demar Jones; Frank Mastrone; Bill Nabel; Juliet Lambert Pratt; Hannah Pressman; Soara-Joye Ross; Ryan Ryan; Mia Scarpa; Jessica Molly Schwartz; Jacob Sundlie

MTC Mainstage
Music Theatre of Connecticut
September 27-October 13, 2019

A Hot Cat in Connecticut

Review of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Music Theatre of Connecticut

What makes a play great? That it explores human complexity with characters that generations of actors can lose themselves in and find compelling truths. That its setting and style, in being specific to a time and place, manage to incorporate a wider sense of human possibility. The people in the drama are caught where and when they are, but they speak to us, across time and distance, with a directness and a passion for life that will always be meaningful.

In every sense, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a great play. And Music Theatre of Connecticut, in a production directed by Kevin Connors, has done it proud. And that means playgoers have the unusual treat of seeing a powerful and professional production of this masterpiece in an intimate space that makes us aware of how voyeuristic our attention can be. All the action takes place in a young married couple’s bedroom, with the audience flanking it on three sides, as if spies watching the struggle at the heart of this fractious and uneasy family drama.

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), seated, Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah), Reverend Tooker (Jim Schilling), Doc Baugh (Jeff Gurner), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green), Gooper (Robert Morley), Mae (Elizabeth Donnelly) in Music Theatre of Connecticut’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Pollitts—Big Daddy and Big Mama—are well-to-do landowners in the south who came from nothing. Big Daddy scraped his way to a position of power and wealth, but his health is at issue. The family—the Pollitts’ two sons, Gooper and Brick, with their wives Mae and Maggie, and a slew of Gooper and Mae’s offspring—have gathered to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday. The news from the clinic is good. Big Daddy doesn’t have cancer, merely a spastic colon. That’s the situation, seemingly, as the play opens, and it’s clear that all is not well right from the start.

Brick was a sports hero, now he drinks relentlessly and has broken his leg in a drunken attempt to jump hurdles as he once could. His wife just as relentlessly belittles Gooper and Mae and schemes at how to make sure that she and Brick are not cut out of the old man’s will. At the base of their marital dysfunction is an act of infidelity and the nature of the affection between Brick and his best sports buddy, Skipper. And then there’s the fact that everybody but Daddy and Mama Pollitt know that, in truth, the news is cancer and the cancer is terminal.

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

Brick (Michael Raver), Maggie (Andrea Lynn Green)

How the characters cope with a hopeless situation and each other is intrinsic to this drama. There is humor because Williams had a wonderful ear for the locutions of southern speech, both in its willful gentility and in its pointed lapses. His characters can lash out with language and can also avoid speech with particular emphasis. By the end, we find surprising turns in some of the characters and, at the play’s heart, a coming to terms with grim truth on the part of Big Daddy and Brick.

Here, director Connors makes the tense and difficult scene between these two men achieve a cathartic climax, abetted by his two fully engaging actors whose control of the material is impressive and convincing. Frank Mastrone’s Big Daddy isn’t simply an egotistical bully—though he is one—but also a man of the world with an almost fatal attachment to his beautiful son, Brick. He lets us hear the fondness, feel the ache, and see the man take the bullet of the last straw. It’s riveting.

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Daddy (Frank Mastrone), Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

And Michael Raver’s Brick deepens and deepens as the play goes on. He begins the play sullen, in a towel, a hedonist trying to withdraw from the world into his own private pleasure palace. His showdown with Big Daddy occurs almost despite himself, driven by the booze he needs so desperately. Late in the play, he nearly steps out of his senses, playing as if a whirlwind of suppressed emotion makes him, finally, one of the “weak, beautiful people” who fall under the sway of the Maggies of this world, an outcome that feels enheartening.

Brick (Michael Raver)

Brick (Michael Raver)

And what of Maggie? It’s a tough role because Maggie can so easily become a caricature of feminine wiles wedded to a desperate resentment, but she’s so much more, and Andrea Lynn Green makes her a memorable mix of sex appeal and sly charm, with a refreshing girlishness that suits her steady awe of her husband, in spite of—or even because of—all his failings. Connors’ blocking always puts Green where she can do the scene most good.

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

Maggie the Cat (Andrea Lynn Green)

As the put-upon and unprepossessing Gooper and Mae, Robert Morley and Elizabeth Donnelly do the parts full justice. Again, caricature can be too easily achieved, but Williams clearly wants us to see that the griefs of this grasping and manipulative couple are real. Morley gives us the pathos of Gooper—never favored, never preferred, but trying to live up to his life’s challenge. Donnelly’s Mae is snitty, and, when she believes she has the upper hand, insufferable as she should be. Excellent support is also provided by Jeff Gurner as Doc Baugh, a professional man who tends to look on in constrained silence, and by the entertaining turn of Jim Schilling as Preacher Tooker, a pious conniver delivered with great comic relish.

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Big Mama (Cynthia Hannah)

Finally, there’s Cynthia Hannah as Big Mama, nearly upstaging Big Daddy. As a role that requires both silliness and heartbreaking pathos, it’s in some ways the more complex role. She rises to the great threat posed by Gooper and Mae with a commanding strength, but her most affecting moment is carrying a cake with lighted candles offstage, pathetic and chastened. Williams’ grasp of the ugliness of marital strife is deep and abiding but he always leavens the bitterness with flashes of affection and the sudden recognition of dependence and sympathy that keeps us fascinated, waiting for the next illumination.

Luminous, bracing, sexy, and satisfying, this Cat stays on that Hot Roof just as long as it can.

 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Kevin Connors

Scenic Design & Technical Direction: Kelly Burr Nelson; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Stage Managed by Gary Betsworth

Cast: Elizabeth Donnelly, Andrea Lynn Green, Jeff Gurner, Cynthia Hannah, Frank Mastrone, Robert Mobley, Michael Raver, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
November 2-17, 2018