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TRAVEL & ENTERTAINMENT: CCCT's Production of “Ragtime” – It’s a New Century and Anything Is Possible!
Jul 12, 2018
by Jan Miller
Contra Costa Civic Theatre’s production of “Ragtime,” currently playing through July 22 at 951 Pomona Avenue in El Cerrito, CA., depicts the dawn of a new century, when everything is changing… and anything is possible! Set in the volatile melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York, three distinctly American tales are woven together – that of a stifled upper class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant and a daring young Harlem musician – united by their courage, compassion and belief in the promise of the future. Together, they confront history’s timeless contradictions of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair… and what it means to live in America.
Though “Ragtime” is a broad sweeping picture of a changing America, audiences still get close personal shots of these characters' lives. Perhaps it is apt that such a grand musical experience fits in the smaller setting, just like the snapshots of life in the musical feel like the short, silent films that were sweeping that era. “Ragtime” is a dazzling musical portrait that brings back all the nostalgia, heartbreak, and hope of 20th century America.
Within the storyline, there are several compelling scenes where the voices of the entire cast of 17 fill the room and the exciting choreography moves the audience to exuberant applause.
The production begins, as the novel does, with beguiling quietness. A door opens and a young boy (Isaiah Johnson) is seen in a corridor of light; a single rag melody line, the matrix of all the music to follow, is heard on a piano. A stereopticon image of an upper-middle-class assembly in their Sunday best dissolves enchantingly to reveal the real people behind it.
Within minutes, all the essential themes of "Ragtime" are established. The rhythms of the opening melody are disrupted with the arrival of two other groups of performers representing the black underclass and newly arrived Jewish immigrants to America. What the audience sees is an image of a melting pot whose ingredients remain unassimilated.
The characters presented represent three separate story lines that will eventually intersect and mesh. There's the generic white New Rochelle family of Father (Ron Pickett), Mother (Maria Mikheyenko) and their son, plus Mother's restless Younger Brother (Ben Knott).
Then there's Coalhouse Walker (LaMont Ridgell), the charismatic jazz pianist, and his lover, Sarah (Robin Murray), who with her illegitimate child is taken in by Mother. The third story line belongs to Tateh (Sterling Liska), a Jewish immigrant who, inspired by hopes of a better life for his daughter (Sophia Gilbert), turns a knack for creating animated silhouette picture books into a career as a movie director.
The frame for the work's momentous events, which reach a climax when Walker seeks revenge after his car is destroyed by white racists, is a fitting context for a work about the velocity of change and an ever-shifting, emotional mood.
The minimalist staging proves surprisingly satisfying, not to mention very much in keeping with Terrence McNally's book, which molds a complicated story into a bold tale of turn-of-the-century America.
Each of the individual performances is outstanding. Yet special recognition is owed to LaMont Ridgell, who portrays Coalhouse Walker Jr., as well as Maria Mikheyenko, who is making her CCCT debut as Mother, and Sterling Liska (Tateh), whose high lyric baritone voice is awe-inspiring.
The wonderful musical direction, which combines the cast's sublime voices into spectacular musical numbers, is guaranteed to make the audience take notice.
One of the most truly epic shows ever to have filled a stage, the original Broadway production featured a cast of 50. CCCT’s production scales that down somewhat to a cast of 17. Even so, merely to fit all those actors on the theater’s stage is very impressive as they move, interact, and even dance. But they are able to do it, and they do it very well. Kudos to the entire cast and crew for this triumph!
Running time is 2 hours, 40 minutes, including one intermission. For tickets or more information please phone (510) 524-9012 or visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Photo caption: LaMont Ridgell gives a stirring performance in his role as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in CCCT's production of "Ragtime."