Lynn Ahrens

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

The Land of Yesterday

Review of Anastasia, Hartford Stage

Back in 1997, Don Bluth et al. created Anastasia, a musical cartoon feature film (adapted from a 1950s movie that earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar). The cartoon musical, from Twentieth Century Fox, gave Disney a run for its money. The latter studio had come back from the dead in the 1980s and discovered box office gold by incorporating the methods of Broadway musicals into animated films with The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Lion King (1994). All three were later adapted to the stage—such is the interchangeability of show biz—with different levels of success. Now, Hartford Stage bring us Anastasia, A New Musical, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak with choreography by Peggy Hickey, another Broadway-bound show adapted from a popular animated film.

The story of Anastasia Romanov takes its cue from the many imposters who claimed to be her, keeping alive the story that she had survived the assassination of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in the Russian revolution of 1917. Bluth and company clearly saw the usefulness for an animated feature of any story involving a princess, and Disneyfied the story with anthropomorphic animals and an evil mystical villain—Rasputin!—to give some humor and thrills to the tale. Composers Stephen Flaherty, music, and Lynn Ahrens, lyrics, created for the film several big numbers, notably “Once Upon a December,” “Journey to the Past,” “Learn to Do It,” and “Paris Holds the Key (To Your Heart).” For the stage show, Flaherty and Ahrens have expanded their supplementary songs from the animated film into a full scale musical that tells its tale through song more than dialogue.

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and Anya (Christy Altomare) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The task facing Terrence McNally, who wrote the Book of Anastasia, A New Musical, is to create yet another story based on the spurious legend of Anastasia’s survival that lets viewers have their fairy tale—she is a princess!—while doubting it too. McNally replaces the evil mad monk with dastardly Communist apparatchiks who must lay to rest the dangerous notion that a Russian princess might yet live. This alteration in favor of something a bit more historically accurate helps in some ways, even as it flattens the fairy tale aspects considerably. For one thing, there are nearly no comic roles and what passes for jokes are basically quips—cue Gertrude Stein (Rayanne Gonzales). And Communists make for rather colorless villains. The story has little dramatic interest, most of the songs serve only narrative purpose and are uninspiring as vehicles for feeling, and the performances, for the most part, are adequate rather than stellar.

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anya (Christy Altomare) and the cast of Anastasia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of the kudos in the show go to the technical features. Anastasia is a spectacle and in that sense it’s spectacular. The movable set decorations of Alexander Dodge’s brilliantly conceived scenic design make us look forward to each scene change—which is to say, each new song—and video & projection design by Aaron Rhyne makes the background more fascinating than the foreground action more than once. Peggy Hickey’s choreography gives this huge troupe of dancers—there are 14 in unnamed but multiply-costumed roles including a segment from Swan Lake—much to do and it is all brought off flawlessly. Linda Cho’s costumes will no doubt spawn facsimiles for figurines, or should. The Dowager Empress’ get-ups are gorgeous at a level that only the regal can wear, and Mary Beth Peil looks every inch a queen in her outfits. And getting to put on stage peasant garb, military wear, bohemian chic, and haut bourgeois splendor makes Cho’s contribution very much a high point. The projections and scenic design and Donald Holder’s lighting design make the stage able to compete with animated action, and Peter Hylenski’s sound design gives the actors’ voices that ever-bright note that makes cartoon sound so distinctive.

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca), Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil) (photo: Joan Marcus)

With such a spectacle on offer, I wish I could say more in favor of the show tunes. It helps that “Once Upon a December”—which we hear three times—is a pretty song. It has to carry the emotional freight of the show, but is never more moving than it is at the start when Peil, as Anastasia’s Nana, the Empress, sings it with Anastasia, age 6 (Nicole Scimeca). Which is to say the real Anastasia—at the last time the two actually see each other. The reunion and reprise, for McNally’s purposes, is real too, in the sense that everyone comes to believe that Anya (Christy Altomare), an amnesiac, Cinderella-like menial taken under-wing by two opportunists, Vlad (John Bolton, amusing) and Dmitry (Derek Klena, mostly still a cartoon), is the actual Anastasia. But there’s really not much suspense or satisfaction in whether or not the aging Empress will accept Anya as kin.

The flight from the dogged Kremlin agent Gleb (Manoel Felciano) and his minions provides some excitement here and there—a train sequence gets things moving near the end of Act I—but most of the high-points on stage are incidental to the actual story. Two such are the moody song of the exiled Russians, “Land of Yesterday,” and “The Countess and the Common Man,” a comical duet by Vlad and his onetime flame, Countess Lily (the Empress’s companion, coincidentally). Both those numbers feature Caroline O’Connor as Lily and, performance-wise, she’s the best thing in the show, which helps Act II, set in Paris where she and the Empress reside.

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Countess Lily (Caroline O'Connor) and Vlad (John Bolton) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The other key bit from the film that holds its own here is “Learn to Do It,” the Eliza Doolittle-like number wherein Vlad and Dmitry try to get Anya to become sufficiently aristocratic. At that point, halfway through Act I, I still had hopes that the show had lots more such tunes up its sleeve. Alas, no. “Journey to the Past,” the big rousing number before the curtain, gives Altomare a chance to show off her range and puts the show’s purpose into song.

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

John Bolton, Caroline O'Connor, center, and the Russian exiles (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a journey into the past, the notion that every little girl wants to be a princess—which Disney has done much to perpetuate—returns to the point in history at which aristocracy became a dirty word, for the sake of an ideology that, in Anastasia’s view, is pernicious because it’s against grandeur and beautiful accessories. If the show has a point, it’s achieved when the three renegades from Soviet Russia, one of them allegedly nobility, hit Paris and find themselves outsiders to the capitalist fat cats as well. One needn’t really be a princess, simply able to dress like one. Better go see Grandma.

Tresnjak, who began the season trying to adapt film noir to the stage with Rear Window, again with much better tech than story, gets closer here to what seems his desiderata: stage productions that are interchangeable with movies in their attention to visuals over script. The point made by the top-notch animated features produced by Disney in the late 1980s, early 1990s (named above) was that the Broadway musical’s tendency to employ caricatures rather than characters could suit cartoon characters perfectly. That Broadway should then make caricatures of cartoon characters might reasonably nonplus a few, while for those who like that sort of thing that’s the sort of thing they like. Anastasia, if you’re willing to forego laughs, excitement, complex motivation, and are happy with great visuals and a handful of winning numbers, should not disappoint.

 

Anastasia, A New Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Choreography by Peggy Hickey
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Inspired by the Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Video & Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. Lapointe; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Doug Besterman; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Music Preparation: Joann Kane Music, Russell Bartmus & Mark Graham; Fight Choreographer: Jeff Barry; Casting: Telsey + Company, Craig Burns, CSA; Vocal Arranger: Stephen Flaherty; Dance Music Arranger: David Chase; Associate Music Director: Steven Malone; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Bonnie Panson; Stage Manager: Trey Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast (in order of appearance): Nicole Scimeca; Mary Beth Peil; Lauren Blackman; Constantine Germanacos; Molly Rushing; Alida Michal; Samantha Sturm; Shina Ann Morris; Manoel Felciano; Derek Klena; John Bolton; Christy Altomare; Ken Krugman; Kevin Ligon; Johnny Stellard; Rayanne Gonzales; Janet Dickinson; Caroline O’Connor; Kevin Munhall; Max Clayton; James Brown III

Hartford Stage
May 12-June 19, 2016