At the turn of the twentieth century Henry Ford invented his famous assembly line, Booker T. Washington graduated from Harvard, immigrants were crossing the oceans to America in huge numbers, and the syncopated rhythms of ragtime were in the air. There is a great deal of irony and tragedy behind each of these great events. Ragtime, the musical, scurries over any complications or ironies and instead sells hope, the American dream, and a good time. CenterStage embraces that idea with a highly polished, spirited production.
Ragtime centers on three American families living around New York City at the turn of the century. Among these are an African American couple, an upper middle class white family, and two Jewish immigrants. Despite some technical difficulties, the show is extremely well done, with solid professional vocal performances, dancing, and staging. Among the vocalists who really stood out was Emily Fields, who works well as the compassionate but bored Mother who wants more. Mother takes in an African American baby whom she has found in her garden, and upon discovering that the baby belongs to her servant, Sarah, attempts to take the baby in. Fields has a pure voice with a wide range, and her style is warm and confident.
Other strong performances came from Tymica Prince as Sarah and Alonzo R. Richmond as Coalhouse. They play a troubled African American couple struggling through life long before Civil Rights. “The Wings of A Dream” was a solid and touching duet between the couple. Tamika Skaggs was another standout who stole the scene at the end of Act I with her rich gospel solo in “Till We Reach That Day.”
The more personal scenes came between Tateh (Monty Fields) and his daughter (Kitty Helm). They are two Jewish immigrants who have just arrived in America. Their relationship felt the most authentic and specific. There is an emotional moment when Tateh has to send his daughter to live with his aunt because he cannot afford to feed her. This felt like the most specific and realistic relationship of the play.
What I missed from Ragtime was what united all of these people ultimately – the writers don’t seem to know. This isn’t the fault of the production. Even the prospect of starvation is quickly swept aside, and things are easily solved. Musicals often do this, but it seemed that an opportunity for richness was missed in favor of easy endings and snappy tunes.
CenterStage’s production is aptly timed, and many of the tumultuous events surrounding the turn of the twentieth century are still haunting us at the turn of the twenty-first. It attempts to remind us that ragtime, syncopation, and music can bring people together in spite of the weird craziness going on in the world.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner