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The Justice Theater Project’s Ragtime Keeps Tempo … Mostly

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The Justice Theater Project of Raleigh is producing a daring production of a modern American play about immigration, police brutality, the nature of celebrity, political protests, and capitalism. These topics are fitting with the company’s focus on social justice.

What is atypical, however, is that these topics are tackled in a musical. That musical is Ragtime. Originally produced on Broadway in 1998, the Tony Award®-winning show was written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, based upon E.L. Doctorow’s popular 1975 novel.

The plot of Ragtime is so complex that it can scarcely be synopsized. In brief: the show examines the American experience at the turn of the 20th century through the lives of three very different families — an upper-class white family in New Rochelle, an African-American musician and his girlfriend in Harlem, and a fresh-off-the-boat Jewish artist from Latvia and his young daughter — all coexisting in New York City. These three families begin worlds apart, and it is the job of the story to interweave them into the larger tapestry of pre-World War I America.

Ragtime is an ambitious project. As originally produced, it contains: 35 musical numbers, three hours of content, a principal cast of 13, an ensemble of 40, and an orchestra of 26. The Broadway production cost $11 million to mount and was a financial disaster, though largely deemed an artistic success. For the relatively small Justice Theater Project to take on a show of this size causes a great deal of skepticism. Some of that skepticism proved unwarranted. Some did not.

Musical director Michael Santangelo surely contributed to what is, perhaps, the production’s most successful choice: nix the band. The tracks chosen work very well and do not feel hokey, as many tracks often do.

On the whole, his singers are strong. They should be. There are at least 60 people in the cast. The ensemble is powerful, and the harmonies are tight in most numbers. This is an ensemble show for sure.

Director Jerry Sipp and choreographer Kristi Vincent Johnson did an admirable job maneuvering this many bodies around the stage (in Clare Hall of the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh), though the show is woefully overcast. There are just too many people to make sense of what’s happening on stage, talented though they may be.

This show barely fits into the Durham Performing Arts Center as written, much less into a small church with an even larger cast. Perhaps, the ensemble member wearing a FitBit® onstage could have been better used elsewhere.

I’m not sure why we are using so much double-casting (I need a flowchart to figure out who was performing what on Saturday night). Special notice must be paid to the stage management team (Erin Folk, E. Renee Eisenhour, and Stephanie Kellogg) for keeping this ship afloat.

Allen Brown (left) as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker accompanies the Harlem Choir (photo by Ra'Chel Fowler)

Allen Brown (right) as pianist Coalhouse Walker accompanies the Harlem Choir (photo by Ra’Chel Fowler)

The true hero of the production team may be lighting designer Tom Wolf, who worked some real theatrical miracles, given that this space is not wired for this kind of production. He made some very bold choices and took some risks. The use of a cyc with LED lighting was extremely effective.

Costumer Brenda L. Hayes and her team had a gargantuan task in front of them, and they met it head-on and — with a couple of notable misses — put the show firmly in its time period better than any other design element could hope to do. Technical director Jeffrey Nugent created a strong architectural set that provided a many-tiered playing space that gave the show its horizontal as well as vertical reach, and director Jerry Sipp did a remarkable job of using Nugent’s extensive set to his advantage.

The Broadway production is well-known for its functioning Ford Model T. which drives across the stage several times. This design team managed to surprise us with its flawless construction of a mock Model T with working headlights, a functioning steering wheel, and a realistic look. This was no “community-theater” prop car. It is used most poignantly in the closing tableau, but I dare not spoil that beautiful moment here.

The acting, the vocals, and the visuals are mostly solid; and they make the show a good one. What keeps the show from being a great one is the sound — not its design, per se, but its execution. The opening chords of the musical tracks could barely be heard at all, a problem which continued throughout the first few numbers of the show.

Act One of the show suffered mostly from a constantly low volume on the tracks and microphones that must have been peaking red all night. Obviously, you cannot mic everyone in a production of this size. But why is a man delivering a very important lyric while wearing a face mask, facing the back of the stage, with no microphone? Why is there an entire scene in Act Two (a montage in which a character seeks legal help) in which not a single line can be heard? Mind you, in Act Two, the music was now so loud that it matched the already too-loud microphones.

Can the JTP creative team not hear what the audience is hearing? Are we not in the same room? It’s as if someone set the levels and went for a smoke. One actress struggled frequently with matching timing with the tracks. I do not know if this was a flaw in the monitors or a struggle with the singer.

Some highlights of the cast include Ashley Popio’s hilarious and charming Evelyn Nesbit, Del Flack’s diabolical and infuriatingly racist fire chief Willie Conklin, Chanda Branch’s moving and sympathetic Sarah, Scotty Elliott’s honest and passionate Tateh, Sam Davis’ adorable and precocious Little Boy, John Honeycutt’s delightfully funny Grandfather, and Ian Finley’s moving and beautifully sung Mother’s Younger Brother. This ensemble piece requires some very diverse performers to pull off the multicharacter assignments with skill.

Some small-but-memorable role awards are due to: Lia Fitzgerald’s Irish servant, Sean Malone’s wicked cop, Karen Williams’ nanny, Julie Weber’s production assistant, Kathleen Jacob’s child welfare worker, Vincent Drayton’s gangman, and Aya Wallace’s powerhouse vocals as Sarah’s Friend.

Overall, The Justice Theater Project was right to do Ragtime again. Its relevance permeates our culture, and the score continues to be moving and powerful. However, the size of the company, as well as the constant problems with sound, keep it from being a truly great show. It needs some serious scaling-down. The show is certainly worth seeing for any fans of historical or political theater and of beautifully composed scores. For some very intense emotional material and some harsh language, I give it a PG-13.

Jason Hassell (seated center left) as Father and JJ Malach as Little Boy keep their heads while everyone else tries to "Get That Ball!" in The Justice Theater Project's production of <em>Ragtime</em> (photo by Ra'Chel Fowler)

Jason Hassell (seated center left) as Father and JJ Malach as Little Boy keep their heads while everyone else tries to catch a foul ball in “What a Game!” in The Justice Theater Project’s production of Ragtime (photo by Ra’Chel Fowler)

The Justice Theater Project presents RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at 8 p.m. June 17 and 18, 2 p.m. June 19, 8 p.m. June 24, 2 and 8 p.m. June 25, and 2 p.m. June 26 in Clare Hall at the Catholic Community of St. Francis of Assisi, 11401 Leesville Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27613.

TICKETS: $29 ($23 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $18 per person for groups of 10 or more and tickets purchased by cast members.

BOX OFFICE: 919-264-7089, thejusticetheaterproject@gmail.com, or http://www.etix.com/.

SHOW: http://www.thejusticetheaterproject.org/june-musical-2015/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/237611179940907/. PRESENTER: http://thejusticetheaterproject.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Justice-Theater-Project/29290766458.

VENUE: http://stfrancisraleigh.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Catholic-Community-of-St-Francis-of-Assisi/172774212838785.

DIRECTIONS/MAPS: http://stfrancisraleigh.org/maps/.

NOTE 1: There will be a special $75-per-person ($55 for JTP Season Members) VIP Send-a-Kid-to-Camp Event, with a meet-and-greet with the show’s cast and food and drink provided by Trali Irish Pub, from 6:30 to 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, June 18th, prior to the 8 p.m. performance.

NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 8 p.m. Saturday, June 25th, performance.

NOTE 3: Seed Art Share provide FREE childcare for potty trained children, ages 3-11, of those attending the 2 p.m. Sunday, June 26th, performance. Click here for information about signing up for free childcare at this show.

OTHER LINKS:

Ragtime (1975 novel): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragtime_%28novel%29 (Wikipedia).

The Novel: https://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

E.L. Doctorow (novelist, 1931-2015): http://www.eldoctorow.com/ (official website) and http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/10137 (Internet Broadway Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E._L._Doctorow (Wikipedia).

Ragtime: The Musical (1996 Toronto, 1998 Broadway, 2003 West End, and 2009 Broadway revival): http://www.mtishows.com/ragtime-version-1 and http://www.mtishows.com/ragtime-version-2 (Music Theatre International), http://www.ibdb.com/Show/View/7352 (1998) and http://www.ibdb.com/Production/View/484345 (2009) (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragtime_%28musical%29 (Wikipedia).

Stephen Flaherty (music): http://www.ahrensandflaherty.com/ (official website), http://www.ragtimeontour.com/creative.html (tour bio), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/11668 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Flaherty (Wikipedia).

Lynn Ahrens (lyrics): http://www.ahrensandflaherty.com/ (official website), http://www.ragtimeontour.com/creative.html (tour bio), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/7450 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lynn_Ahrens (Wikipedia).

Terrence McNally (book): http://www.terrencemcnally.com/ (official website), http://www.ragtimeontour.com/creative.html (tour bio), http://www.ibdb.com/Person/View/8828 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrence_McNally (Wikipedia).

Jerry Sipp (Hillsborough, NC director): https://www.facebook.com/jerry.sipp (Facebook page).

Kristi Vincent Johnson (Durham, NC choreographer): https://www.facebook.com/k.vincentjohnson (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Dustin K. Britt is a Raleigh native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches high school writing and literature. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.


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