Power Failure Doesn’t Dim GLT’s Dreamy Masterpiece “Ragtime”
No music, no lights. Just the sheer silky A cappella artistry of this magnificent coterie of talent
BY SANDY STAGGS
As the Girl on a Swing rocked 10 feet in air and twirled her flaming batons, she braced for her finale and over-jostled one baton right into the electrical transformer above her, showering the now-darkened Greenville Little Theatre auditorium with fiery fairy dust. With Greenville celebrity performer Delvin Choice leading the 30-member cast, composure and tears streaming down their cheeks, they braved the vastness of the blank stage and brought the enchanting musical to a worthy, dramatic and climactic conclusion.
No music, no lights. Just the sheer silky A cappella artistry of this magnificent coterie of talent.
Then the GLT audience stood and applauded for an uninterrupted 16 ½ mins. That was ST. Patrick’s Day, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Now known as The Night the Lights Went Out in Greenville.
Okay, so I embellish some. This is Satire, not Fake News!. There were no Suzanne Sugerbaker fire batons, the transformer/downed power line was actually down the street, and the ovation was not quite as long). But I feel, as anyone else in the audience on that fateful and faith-restoring evening, the surreal and magical mood set forth in this description is spot-on.
When the power went out, the emergency lights instantly reacted and GLT staffer/Lighting Designer Cory Granner quickly assured the audience that the crew was seeking a speedy resolution and that we would definitely see the finale. A few patrons did leave. And GLT offered to exchange tickets for a future show for anyone who desired.
But GLT ticketholders indeed got their money’s worth with this beautifully and eloquently staged spectacle directed by Mother-and-Son team Suzanne McCall and Sam McCalla. With an all-star cast and topnotch vocal work throughout. The pristine package never loses sight of the important American dream message at its heart, and is personally the company’s finest work since “Mary Poppins” two years ago. This show sets the bar very high for fan-favorite “Beauty and the Beast” opening this summer.
Terrence McNally’s book is shrewdly edited and balanced, and still maintains the lofty breadth of its source saga from E. L. Doctorow’s novel, written in the TV mini-series era of “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds, Rich Man, Poor Man,” etc.
This impeccably-arranged score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens “Ragtime” opens with a gentle piano rag jingle and swells into a 9-minute grandiose composition that engulfs your soul immediately. Who recalls “The Sting”?
Through third person narratives from the actors about their characters, we glean from three diverse cultures grappling with a turbulent America at the turn of the last century.
Beginning with young Shaw Shurley in a vested, mature performance as The Little Boy, Edgar, and who really shows his range later by keeping up with the men at the hilarious baseball game (“What A Game”). Father, a compelling and impressive turn by Luke Crowder (“New Music”), and Mother (Meg Foster) exemplify the lifestyle of “ladies with parasols and fellows with tennis balls” in suburban New York.
Add in the mix, Mother’s Younger Brother (a solid, believable Michael Lewis) and ornery Grandfather, played by the always-witty guest actor Jerry Witty.
In Harlem, the African-American ensemble is led by Choice in a powerhouse star turn as touring rag musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who is finally ready to settle down with his gal Sarah (Jessica Eckenrod in stupendous form) and their newborn, both having been cared for by the white family.
And stepping onto Ellis Island are Jonathan Kilpatrick as artist Tateh and his Little Girl (Louise Martin), Latvian Jewish immigrants seeking a new life in America. Kilpatrick is committed to this role, and hauntingly convincing with the accent and delivers handsomely in “Journey On,” and “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.” as he patents a new entertainment medium.
Their stories and heavenly voices all intertwine under the shadow of actual events and infamous figures who give the plot elements of historical accuracy.
The millionaire magnates J. P. Morgan (Kenneth Tice) and Henry Ford (Andrew Szykula), and explorers Admiral Peary (John Mark Elliott) and Matthew Henson (Griffin Lewis) make appearances.
And audiences are in for a Cirque du Soleil surprise from Carter Allen in his alluring portrayal of illusionist Harry Houdini. Hats (or chains) off, Carter!
Jamie Ann Walters is fearless and frothy as chorus girl and supermodel Evelyn Nesbit, known for her jealous husband’s murder of her lover, Architect Stanford White.
Kristi Parker Byers is striking and barely recognizable as anarchist and labor radical Emma Goldman and shines in “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square”
Booker T. Washington (LeRoy Kennedy in a steadfast and honorable portrait of the influential African American leader and Peacemaker) becomes entangled in the story after a tragic case of racial injustice, an act that sends all three groups into a tailspin.
And though we did miss about three songs – including Meg Foster’s “Back to Before” which Upstate director John Fagan described her Friday rendition as ‘this finest vocal Foster has ever performed. EVER.” I am crushed, but Fagan’s assertion is not surprising given the all-star cast and Foster’s many other star turns
Foster exudes power, and command of her instrument. She is mesmerizing in this sweetheart of a role with several opportunities to showcase in solos like “Goodbye, My Love” and “What Kind of Woman.” She gives Mother strength and plays the epitome of kindness and compassion, all that’s good in the world.
“Ragtime” is a glorious cacophony, with each scene setup is like a painting by Seurat, and in fluid choreographed connections that allow two elaborate staircases to form any setting. And Cory Granner’s lighting was so seductive and in the moment, it was invisible oftentimes.
Resident Choreographer Kimberlee Ferreira infuses festive and period-appropriate moves, especially in the rousing “Getting’ Ready Rag” sequence.
Tim St. Clair, II is responsible for the sensational synergy and tenderness of the vocal work from the perfect “Ragtime” opening to “Til We Reach that Day,” a low-key gospel inspirational with a choir performed by the African American ensemble.
Thomas L. Brooks’ costumes are exquisite for all three vastly different cultures, and fashion schemes of textures and colors: Fine fabric and parasols for the upper crust, Euro-rags for the immigrants, and respectable and juke joint attire for the Harlem scenes.
Larry Hyder is Production Stage Manager and Laura Wolfe is Stage Manager for “Ragtime.”
“Ragtime” continues through March 25, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at Greenville Little Theatre, 444 College Street in Greenville. Call (864) 233-6238 or visit http://www.greenvillelittletheatre.org