The Manatee Players mingle drama, music and history with a powerful Ragtime.
By Kay Kipling
Ragtime, adapted from the E.L. Doctorow book by writer Terrence McNally and the musical team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, is a show packed with characters, colors and emotions. So it’s quite a challenge for a community theater like the Manatee Players to pull off a production on its small stage, with a nonprofessional cast possessing varying levels of stage experience. That Ragtime succeeds as well as it does is due in large part to director-choreographer Rick Kerby, who maneuvers his cast so well through some complicated and varied musical numbers—and changes in the American Zeitgeist—that most of the time we are swept along by the story and its atmosphere despite its two-hour-and-45-minute length.
That’s true even in the opening number, which faces the challenge of introducing us to that wide cast of personages. For those unfamiliar with the book, Ragtime weaves together the lives of its fictional characters with those of some real people of 100 years ago, including escape artist Harry Houdini, showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, financier J.P. Morgan, anarchist Emma Goldman and author-educator Booker T. Washington, among others. These figures interact in differing ways with Doctorow’s originals: a WASP New Rochelle family headed by Mother and Father (Meg Newsome, Rodd Dyer), a black Harlem pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Elex Bornett) and his beloved Sarah (Nya Smith), and a Jewish immigrant named Tateh (Ken Basque) and his young daughter (Lindsey Bell), trying to make their way in a new world.
Much of Ragtime’s drama depends on the story of Coalhouse and his pride and joy, a Model T that is desecrated by bigots, and his ensuing search for justice. There are moments of exhilaration (Getting Ready Rag), humor (What a Game!, set in the baseball bleachers) and vaudeville, too; but the overwhelming feeling of Ragtime is probably bound to be that of a sort of wistfulness for America itself as it changes, grows and becomes something ever different.
Among the standouts in the cast are Bornett, full of energy and style as Coalhouse; Basque, who’s very right for the role of Tateh and sings with articulate power; and Newsome, who carries much of the burden of expressing the possibility of individual change with her character in a non-flashy way. It’s also worth mentioning Tyler Velasco as Mother’s younger brother, who turns radical; Brandi Kalinowski as Goldman; and Erin J. McFarland as Nesbit, whose brief moment of fame as the center of a murder case that was, for a time, the “Crime of the Century” tapered off into eventual obscurity.
Marc Lalosh’s set design, incorporating still photo backdrops of settings with painted scenery and a moving two-tiered metal framework, works well to take us to real places and times, and Derek Lockwood’s costumes, ranging from all-white dresses and parasols to showgirl attire to Atlantic City beachwear, are both appealing and enhance the characters they dress.
There were some sound difficulties the night I saw the show, and the prerecorded accompaniment occasionally caused hesitation on the singers’ parts. But overall Ragtime is quite an achievement for the Manatee Players, and one worth seeing. It continues through May 25; call 748-5875 or visit manateeplayers.com for more info.