‘Ragtime’ at Arts Collective@HCC

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The wheels are turning, the dream is burning; justice and love and a time where the music inspired the world to build a better hope for tomorrow. They call it Ragtime, and it’s on the stage for a limited engagement at the Howard Community College Arts Collective.

 Little Girl (Gwendolyn Lowell) and Tateh (Jacob Stuart). Photo by Nate Pesce.
Little Girl (Gwendolyn Lowell) and Tateh (Jacob Stuart). Photo by Nate Pesce.

With book by Terrence McNally and Tony Award-winning Music and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, this sensational, timeless musical spins into fruition for the final production of the 2013/2014 season; -a surefire way to go out with a bang! Directed by David Gregory with Musical Direction by Mayumi B. Griffie, this tremendous musical beast is a moving retelling of human history captured in an innovative and inspiring concept that reflects history as a living entity.

Having the potential to have in the upward of a dozen different locations, Ragtime would present a challenge to ordinary creative teams. With Director David Gregory at the helm, the production and creative team invent exciting new ways to make this production a smashing success without the trappings of enormous set pieces. Scenic Designer Jeff Harrison creates a construct of moving shelves which serve as all manner of things, enabling locations like Mother’s Garden to exist on the same plane as Father’s ship or Sarah’s attic bedroom. The set, much like the progression experienced in the musical, is in perpetual motion, continually moving, rotating, shifting, and changing. Harrison layers in symbolic instances, one particular unit being used in dual purpose for the prides and joys of Coalhouse’s life. The constant motion of these set pieces, which are filled and decorated with props and costumes, create a wondrous spectacle that invites the audience to use their imagination. Harrison lays the groundwork for the scenes; the audience envisions the rest, falling in line with the inspiring ideas behind the age of industry.

Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin, working with Projection Designer Riki K., enhance the world of Harrison’s living shelves. Joslin showcases her ability to set colored lights to moods without overdoing this notion to seem contrived. Riki K. brings an added obscured projections falling across backgrounds to make scenes in New Rochelle far different from those of Atlantic City. Realistic projections, as well as abstract ones, make their way into this performance, furthering the creative vision of Ragtime experienced outside the box.

Continuing to construct the symbolic layers of this production is Costume Designer Shannon Maddox. Grouping each of the three families into similar outfits she draws distinctive lines between their social structures. Crisp, pristine white linens of fine quality and lacey adornments are used for “Family” and the New Rochelle citizens, while Maddox uses coarser materials in red and black for the folks of Harlem, and distressed threads of gray and brown for the Immigrants. This notion of separation among the groups defines the plot structure and overall entanglement of everyone’s story through the simple use of fabric colors and styles.

Musical Director Mayumi B. Griffie brings forth the sound that is associated with Ragtime, not only the musical but the overall style itself. Griffie’s work with the cast results in stupendous harmonies and enormous sounds, particularly from the ensemble during numbers like “Till We Reach That Day” and “New Music.” Achieving solid blended harmonies in smaller duets and trios as well, Griffie is a brilliant addition to the creative team.

At the head of the wheels that keep on turning is Director David Gregory. Conceptualizing the musical, Gregory reinvents Ragtime under the veil of living history. From the intricate layout of the set to the way in which the characters narrate their stories, every action, every set piece, every moment has a concise purpose driving it into place; all the pieces coming together to create this exploration of history as a living, breathing entity. Never lost in the potential spectacle of the piece, Gregory finds fantastically innovative ways to achieve a historical reality among the characters; portrait frames becoming swings, ordinary shelves becoming cars, the possibilities become virtually endless. Gregory’s use of the turntable throughout the production makes for visually stunning moments, packed on top of his unique and precise blocking. One of the most visually haunting moments with the turntable comes during “Look What You’ve Done,” where all the pieces of movement, setting, and positioning fall perfectly in line. Gregory’s vision brings this treasured musical into a new light; a stunning visionary production that is unlike any other production of Ragtime I have seen (and I have seen many!)

Performers from all walks of life populate the stage in this cast of 30. Giving strength and ferocious sound to full ensemble numbers, the quality of musicality appearing in this production is beyond impressive. Featured soloist Caelyn Sommerville, playing Sarah’s Friend, adds a powerful belt and fierce mournful outcry of her voice to “Till We Reach That Day.” Houdini (Todd Zachwieja), makes his charming presence felt throughout the production in little bursts as well.

It’s Emma Goldman (Lauren Blake Williams) and Evelyn Nesbit (Katie Tyler) that give supporting characters more than enough support in this performance. While Williams and Tyler never appear in a featured scene together, each find ways to stand out on their own, making their characters vibrant and exciting to behold. Williams, as the blazing political voice of Goldman gives a rousing rendition of “He Wanted to Say” and her lines that pipe up during “Union Square” showcase her character’s vigor. Tyler takes the opposite side of the coin, squeaky and quaint and all around loveable, her bubbly effervescence keeps the audience enjoying her story, even if she is vapid and narcissistic at first. “Crime of the Century” is her signature number where Tyler is able to really sink her vocal chops into the song, giving us a taste of what she can really do.

 Sarah (Shayla Lowe) and Coalhouse Walker Jr (Jamar Brown) with the Cast of 'Ragtime.' Photo by Nate Pesce.
Sarah (Shayla Lowe) and Coalhouse Walker Jr (Jamar Brown) with the Cast of ‘Ragtime.’ Photo by Nate Pesce.

The Family, as they are unofficially known, is populated with talent. Grandfather (Dave Guy), though never featured in a singing solo, has a sharp wit when delivering his cantankerous one-liners. Father (Cory Jones) is the severe Patriarch of the family, a symbolic representation of resistance to change. Jones’ physical rigidity, which follows into his singing, keeps the notion of regulated normalcy ever-present in his character. His reprise of “New Music” solidifies his position with a touch of regret.

Younger Brother (Brian Nabors) is a vocal talent to be contended with. With just a few songs to prove this in, Nabors succeeds with vehemence; his emotions bound up into every word he sings. The pure sound produced during “The Night That Emma Goldman Spoke at Union Square” is an early display of his changing passion. By the time Nabors reaches “”He Wanted to Say” the emotional build has peaked and explodes into his final verse of this number.

Mother (Santina Maiolatesi) is a central focus in the show, not only for her family but for each of the main representations of the other two groups. Maiolatesi creates a brilliant character arch, starting as a prim and polished house wife in New Rochelle and eventually evolving into a free woman with her own voice by the end of the show. Her vocal prowess is a sensation, imbuing songs like “What Kind of Woman” with heart-wrenching emotions. Her phenomenal rendition of “Back to Before” is both striking and moving; an awe-inspiring number that draws the audience completely into her story and her strife.

The harmonies that Maiolatesi produces with others during duets, trios, and quartets are incredible. Her voice blends to perfection with Tateh (Jacob Stuart) for duets like “Our Children” and all around with everyone for “New Music.” Stuart, as the determined immigrant, gives a heartwarming performance throughout the production. His accent is consistent, his emotions are raw. “Gliding” quickly becomes one of the most earnestly vulnerable numbers in the performance as he sings of hope and dreams. Showcasing his versatility, Stuart easily carries off jauntier tunes like “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” with a lively spirit while still maintaining the sound he has constructed for the character.

Coalhouse (Jamar Brown) and Sarah (Shayla Lowe) are the unifying forces that tie the story together -one simple love story that changes the lives of everyone around them. Their duets are striking; “Wheels of a Dream” carrying forth amazing harmonies from both performers while clearly expressing the hopes of their characters’ futures. Their chemistry is dynamite, even if it does roll in reverse throughout the performance. Brown is truly soulful, emotions flowing like an unstoppable river into all of his solos, particularly “Make Them Hear You.” Balancing fiery fury in numbers like “Justice,” Brown creates a dynamic dichotomy inside of Coalhouse; engaging his character with the audience so that every step of his journey is clear.

Lowe, as the troubled Sarah, is a stunning vocal addition to the cast. The truly anguished cries during “Your Daddy’s Son” is the emotional crescendo of the show. Her emotional turbulence is felt throughout the performance, particularly when she stands beside Coalhouse.

- (far left) Mother (Santina Maiolatesi) and Father (Cory Jones) with Little Boy (Theodroe Yu) taking a picture during "Atlantic City." Photo by Nates Pesce.
– (far left) Mother (Santina Maiolatesi) and Father (Cory Jones) with Little Boy (Theodroe Yu) taking a picture during “Atlantic City.” Photo by Nates Pesce.

Arts Collective @ HCC’s Ragtime is one show you won’t want to miss. It is something beautiful, powerful, and inspiring. Ragtime is the show of the century and this wondrous cast shows you why.

Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission.

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Ragtime plays through May 18, 2014  at Howard Community College’s Arts Collective, in the Smith Theatre of the The Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center—10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.

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Amanda Gunther is an actress, a writer, and loves the theatre. She graduated with her BFA in acting from the University of Maryland Baltimore County and spent two years studying abroad in Sydney, Australia at the University of New South Wales. Her time spent in Sydney taught her a lot about the performing arts, from Improv Comedy to performance art drama done completely in the dark. She loves theatre of all kinds, but loves musicals the best. When she’s not working, if she’s not at the theatre, you can usually find her reading a book, working on ideas for her own books, or just relaxing and taking in the sights and sounds of her Baltimore hometown. She loves to travel, exploring new venues for performing arts and other leisurely activities. Writing for the DCMetroTheaterArts as a Senior Writer gives her a chance to pursue her passion of the theatre and will broaden her horizons in the writer’s field.