It feels as if Boulder's Dinner Theatre has opened the doors and let in a great whoosh of invigorating air. Sure, the blocky old interior is the same, and the food hasn't changed in decades. And yes, many of the cast members are familiar, because BDT is perhaps the last company in the area where actors can settle in, hone their crafts and mature while still making a living and raising children, should they so desire. But with Ragtime, artistic director Michael J. Duran has taken a big risk. First off, he picked a hell of a musical to stage -- one that's based on an important book and marries a meaningful plot with a smart, perceptive script and terrific songs. And then he did something else quite wonderful: Knowing he'd have trouble finding a full cast because several of the most important characters are African-American and only one African-American actor, Lea L. Chapman, had worked regularly with the BDT, he teamed up with Jeffrey Nickelson of Denver's respected Shadow Theatre Company. Duran ended up hiring several Shadow actors, and Nickelson himself plays the enigmatic angel-devil Coalhouse Walker. The energy and discovery created by this fusion of talents is palpable; you sense the synergy among the actors and the results of two very different directorial minds being brought into play.
I've often wished there were more collaboration between local companies. Imagine Germinal Stage's Ed Baierlein, for example, bringing his subtle and mature sensibilities to a project with the equally literate but far more subversive young folk at Buntport, or Paragon finding a script that required the importation of a couple of dancers from Colorado Ballet. Imagine Heritage's anarchic Anny Dwyer on the staid stage of the Denver Center, or an influx of people from the city urging Country Dinner Playhouse to move away from the '50s suburban time warp it's occupied for decades. Imagine how profoundly Israeli producer-actor Ami Dayan's intensity and political awareness would have deepened Curious's own disjointed attempt at collaborative work, The War Anthologies. Cross-fertilization can be a mess, but it can also be illuminating. There's a reason that theater is most exciting in such major metropolises as New York and London: the constant interaction of artists at every level.
Ragtime also happens to be a perfect vehicle for collaboration. Set in the earliest years of the twentieth century, E. L. Doctorow's novel is about the lives of differing groups in America: citizen and immigrant, white and black, the privileged and the poor. An upper-class family from New Rochelle, consisting of Mother, Father, Younger Brother and a youngster named Edgar, finds itself thrown into turmoil when Mother discovers an abandoned black baby in the garden. Despite Father's reservations, she takes in both the child and his desperate mother, Sarah. Pretty soon, the baby's father, a jazz musician by the name of Coalhouse Walker, comes to the door to woo Sarah. A parallel story concerns another father, Tateh, an impoverished artist and Latvian Jew who is attempting to raise his little daughter in the grime and danger of New York City.
Historical events and specific historic figures are woven into the action. Tateh eventually becomes a key figure in the development of the film industry. We watch the shenanigans of Evelyn Nesbit, the woman at the center of what was then called the crime of the century: Evelyn's husband, Harry K. Thaw, shot eminent architect Stanford White in a fit of jealousy. In addition, Henry Ford invents the assembly line; Houdini performs his mind-blowing exploits; Emma Goldman preaches revolution to working men and women; Booker T. Washington, played to self-righteous perfection by Shadow regular Dwayne Carrington, preaches accommodation to his fellow African-Americans. And on hearing that Houdini plans to visit Sarajevo, the apparently psychic young Edgar calls out to him several times, "Warn the duke."
BDT's prologue to Ragtime is jazzy and energetic, and for a while we seem set for a lively, nostalgic comedy. But things are about to get more serious: The dignified and apparently gentle Coalhouse suffers a major insult. The injustice is palpable and outrageous, but Coalhouse's response is so unyielding that it ultimately leads to the death of his Sarah. Turning revolutionary, he gathers other angry young African-Americans and embarks on a course of murder and mayhem. The violence is less demented in the musical than in the book, and Coalhouse retains our sympathy. Besides, the music is so stirring that it almost nullifies his crimes. And the ending is redemptive, an affirmation that people of all backgrounds can find a common humanity.
Of course, a noble theme isn't always enough; much depends on execution. Not having the resources available to a big Broadway house, Duran keeps the set simple, using platforms of differing heights and background panels patterned with blocks of type from the book. Linda Morken's costumes are perfect. Most important, the roles are all well cast. Nickelson takes Coalhouse Walker from his affable beginnings to a man tight with grief and rage. His powerfully resonant singing voice marries so beautifully with the voice of Reynelda Snell, who plays Sarah, that when they sing together -- as they do on "Wheels of a Dream" and "Sarah Brown-Eyes" -- you want the sound to go on forever. It's the same when Snell sings solo. Shelly Cox-Robie deploys her sweet, pure voice and her usual effortless sincerity and grace as Mother, and she gets strong support from John Scott Clough's Father. Wayne Kennedy is touching as Tateh. Flanked by men holding IWW signs, Barb Reeves gives Emma Goldman a strength and fire that make you want to stand up and sing "The Internationale." Joanie Brosseau-Beyette is a hoot and a giggle -- almost literally -- as Evelyn. This is the first time I've seen Brandon Dill, who plays Younger Brother, and he's a find: a supple, convincing actor with a mellifluous voice. Most surprisingly, the children -- red-haired Kaleb Tank, who plays Edgar, and thin, soulful little Ashlee Baldwin as Tateh's daughter -- are pitch-perfect, and Lea Chapman's beautiful son, Pharoh L. Johnson, who appears as Coalhouse Walker III, is enchanting. My only quibble is that A. K. Klimpke, as the fireman whose bullying ignites all the violence, uses an Irish accent that's pure music hall.
This Ragtime is a joy, buoyed by strong performances, filled with memorable moments and crammed with musical numbers that range from meltingly lovely to funny to wildly exhilarating. So why does Duran, having risked and gained so much, plan to go from ragtime to the equivalent of Muzak, continuing his season with The Sound of Music, Nunsense and Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical?
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