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They Call it ‘Ragtime’:

Thalian Association
5/26-29, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $22-25 • (910) 632-2285

STANDING OVATION: Colby Lewis as Coalohouse Walker Jr and Cindy Hopesdales as Sarah deserve much applause for their fine pipes, belting song after song in ‘Ragtime.’ Courtesy photo.

Making its Broadway debut in 1998 on a magnificently grand scale, to the tune of $11 million to be exact, “Ragtime” proved a feat of a production, garnering 13 Tony nominations and four wins. With fireworks and a working Model T amongst its props, it dazzled audiences. When the show saw a revival a decade later, opening under less flashy circumstances amidst a recession, it continued catching Tony buzz, securing seven nominations in 2010. Its redo maintained a skeletal look compared to the first run, but put the focus on the backbone of the production: talent from a 60-plus strong cast.

Thalian Association’s premiere of “Ragtime” sticks to the basics, with stunning local talent bringing to life E. L. Doctorow’s novel and Terrence McNally’s script. Though they minimize the set, it still wows the audience thanks to the original Broadway costumes and the Model T, which appeared in the first runs of the production. To put it best, “Ragtime” is one of the association’s best shows to date, even if it is almost three hours long.

“Ragtime” features an amazing orchestra of musicians, conducted by Jonathan Barber, and pays homage to a genre that unfolds jazzy swing as a backdrop to the play. Yet, the heart of the show panders a more serious mien. In 1906, socio-economic status oppressed many as they began their search for the American Dream. Those who weren’t affected, a la white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants or WASPs, lived in a bubble that inevitably would burst upon the realization that in order for the dream to live, it must endure all types: immigrants and African Americans included. While “Ragtime” has its moments of preachy liberalism and questionable democracy, it works because it shows the not-so-niceties of our country in its infantile stages of equality.

The play begins with a well-to-do New Rochelle, N.Y., family seeing off their patriarch on his latest voyage to the North Pole by sea. Distraught by her husband’s impending absence, Mother is an ordinary housewife who turns into a feminine tour-de-force while her husband’s away. She chooses to take in an African-American lady named Sarah who happened to dump her illegitimate child, fathered by Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., in the family garden. Meanwhile, as Father hoists off, an Eastern European family, Tateh and his little girl, cross the ship’s path as they’re settling into their new homeland where they foresee opportunity and success encompassing a better life.

The play moves seemlessly in and out of these three groups of people, who meet scene after scene, as truths of America are uncovered with the help of historical figures and celebrities. Capitalism and greed, hatred and kindness, bigotry and acceptance, pride and shame, hope and fear all run rampant through the comedic, dramatic and tragic turn of events. From union protests to racist hate crimes to presidential elections, much unravels. At times, it can seem a bit convoluted, but its point always remains clear: America truly stands as a melting pot of people striving for happiness, even in the face of adversity.

Of the massive cast, quite a few shine in their roles, including Bradley Barefoot as Edgar, the little boy of the WASP family. Barefoot delivers most laughs throughout the play and even directs its movement with prescient foresight. He’s a child actor beyond his years, successfully questioning and finding his feet in every predicament that arises within character. Barefoot’s natural presence made his scenes rawly endearing.

Katherine Rudeseal as Mother delivers a steady portrayal between a woman who wants to do right by her husband—a stoic Steve Gallian—and one who’s beginning to find her own voice and beliefs in life. She plays Mother with easeful fortitude, and her songs are performed with effortless pitch.

Rudeseal’s husband, Troy, plays Tateh, the Jewish immigrant wanting betterment for his daughter (Emilia Torello). Mr. Rudeseal nails the performance with gusto. His accent doesn’t waver, but, more importantly, his ambition to “make it” in America doesn’t waver either. He embodies the vision of unapologetic hope, even through a multitude of misfortune.

The celebrities in the performance help weave the fabric of our country’s pop culture, including our obsession with stars, like the first pinup girl, Evelyn Nesbit. Caitlin Becka brings the sexy starlet to life with curvaceous, tawdry moves and in typical vaudeville fashion. Her high-pitched “weeee,” announcing every entry and exit, always beckons a laugh.

Newcomer to the theater scene, John Burke makes Henry Ford a commanding presence, with quite a bombastic singing voice. Harry Griffin’s JP Morgan is sleek and boastful, just as one would expect of “the richest man in the world,” while Tré Cotten’s Booker T. Washington embodies the sound voice of educated reason.

Harry Houdini, courtesy of Steve Rassin, mandates the play’s most successful immigrant. He offers grandiose appearances, even entering the stage upside down during the opening act. In fact, such details add to the professionalism of Thalian’s production, especially scenes where actors move in slow motion, directing attention to the singer who’s narrating the event of the moment.

As any musical goes, the real stars are those who bring to life the emotional dialogue of “Ragtime.” Cindy Hospedales as Sarah, Colby Lewis as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Joy Ducree Gregory as Sarah’s friend deserve standing ovations for their amazing pipes. They transform the treacherous unfair treatment of African Americans into a crescendo of release and retribution, with songs like “Your Daddy’s Son,” “Till We Reach That Day” and “Make Them Hear You.”

Though many of the tracks, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, come with a mishmash of thoughts sometimes trying the audience on connectivity (“Lawrence, Massachusetts”), others suffer from soppy Disney-like mentality (“Gliding”). All is forgiven upon hearing “Wheels of a Dream,” “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “What a Game!”

The set is minimalistic but quite effective. Executed with impeccable timing and mobility, the cast often brings in needed front-door façades, stairs to provide dimension of a ship’s dock or upstairs attic, and a piano to showcase a nightclub or living room. The technical end could withstand a few more updates so microphones don’t vacillate from soft to loud, or on to off. The lighting also seems just shy of compelling, at least from balcony seating. It often fails to showcase successful silhouettes or unintentionally hides the faces of those who are speaking.

What cannot be underestimated are the fascinating garments, all handmade for the 60-plus cast by Tony and Academy award-winning Santo Loquasto, with costume coordination by locals Charlotte Safrit and Debbie Scheu. Jaw-dropping turn-of-the-century wardrobe truly depicts the difference of cultures, and a period where formalities of dress made as much a difference in reputation as anything else.

Again, this is the best production Thalian Association has debuted from its premiere 2010-11 season. Audiences should come prepared to ride its wave of emotions.

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