by DICK KEREKES
The Jacksonville University College of Fine Arts opened the 2008-09 season with the Terrance McNally, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens’, musical, Ragtime, based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow. The show was nominated for 12 Tony Awards in l998 and won three. It lost out as best musical to the “Lion King.”
As I write this, three performances remain on October 31 and November l at 7:30 pm and November 2 at 2:30 PM. All performances are at the Swisher Theatre on the campus of Jacksonville University. It is a wonderful production and I urge you not to miss it.
Ragtime is set in a suburb of New York, New Rochelle in l905. The story explores as our country in the midst of social changes of land ownership, new immigrants from Europe and the migration of blacks from the South. The principal plot revolves around a fiery black piano man, Coalhouse Walker Jr. whose love of his life has disappeared. Sarah, pregnant with his child, fled to New Rochelle where she is taken in by a well-to-do WASP household. Coalhouse finds her and sets to winning her back. They encounter racist firefighters who trash his prized Model T Ford. Coalhouse seeks revenge that eventually ends in tragedy.
The story is also about a Jewish immigrant and widower, Tateh and his daughter trying to make his way in this country who also encounters the mother of this WASP family and eventually winds up in the new motion picture industry as a director and producer.
There is a cast of 45, all Jacksonville University students except for four performers. Veteran actor, Gregory Leute has his comic moments as the Grandfather . Jaden Gilyard makes a cameo appearance as Coalhouse’s son. Two LaVilla students who are brother and sister, Kara Singletary and Karl Singletary play the daughter of Tateh and the son of the rich family, and both were very convincing in their roles.
The WASP family featured excellent voices and very fine acting. Lucas Cyr as Father was Jud in JU’s Oklahoma while Greg Bosworth was outstanding as Curly, the mother’s young brother, in the same production. Both had impressive solos in Act II. Freshman Julia Fallon sings several wonderful ballads as Mother. You will see a lot of her in the next four years she is terrific. I have seen her grow up in theatre on the local stages in a variety of roles. One of her best roles about eight years ago was as the Lead in Annie at the Alhambra Dinner Theatre.
Renee Freeman was outstanding as Sarah. A senior at JU, she has been active in community theatre productions in Once Upon and Island, Bat Boy and Cabaret. She won the Best Supporting Actress award at Players by the Sea for her performance in Al Letson’s ‘Julius X. Vincent Teschel was a wild and wacky Will Parker in JU’s Oklahoma and shows his versatility and singing talent as the determined to succeed Tateh.
As Coalhouse, Milton Threadcraft III is making his stage debut as an actor and singer but you could never guess it from his performance which is polished and professional and compliments his glorious voice. He is a senior at JU, studying Percussion Performance and be assured he will find a career in music, he is talented.
Part of the fun of this show is seeing famous historical figures woven into the story. You will see Harry Houdini (Samuel Smid) Booker T. Washington (Joshua Gilyard), Emma Goldman (Maggie Moore) Henry Ford (Erick Crow), Admiral Peary (Jason Dietz), and J. P. Morgan (Dean Winter). I don’t know if Evelyn Nesbit, the sexy cabaret singer, was famous or not, but as played by Lauren Shaw she should be. Of course, I have always been sucker for a girl in tights!
Technical Director Ben Wilson created very dramatic lighting to augment the exciting music. The stage is open except for set pieces that are brought on (like the automobile, tables and chairs etc.) The unique feature of the staging are 2 fancy wrought iron platforms and stair cases on wheels, that are brought in and out and represent many locations like the deck of a boat, train platform, the second story of a house, and on and on.
Costume Designer Allison Steadman’s creations made this very much a visual lesson in history with apparel from the turn of last century.
The thirteen piece orchestra lead by Musical Director Robert Tudor, was tucked away under the stage, out of sight, but we could hear them loud and clear and to perfection playing all the 30 songs of varied styles including, of course, ragtime. Choreographer Kristi Johnson, made use of the large open stage with very exciting and dynamic numbers.
Deborah Jordan is Professor of Theatre and Head of the Acting/ Performance Program at Jacksonville University and as Director was responsible for assembling this amazing cast and support staff. The highest tribute to her efforts was overheard in the lobby when several persons who had seen Ragtime in its New York production said the JU production was as good and even better than the one in the Big Apple. What more can I say.
I have written much praise about Swisher Theatre, but it bears repeating. The caliber and quality of the theatre department went up several notches, when Swisher was finally reopened after a major renovation that took several years. I loved the past productions of Oklahoma and Grapes of Wrath in this auditoriunm, and Ragtime is just another feather in the theatre hat of JU. Looking at the quality and talent in the theatre program, as is evidenced by this large cast, Jacksonville residents are going to see many exciting productions in the future.
Rounding out this cast are: Kristi Freeman, Michael Coley, Jake Torres, Annie Lorenzana, Jason Dietz, Anesha Hines,Tara Yates Reeves, Nina Waters, Craig Balfour, Janae Lafleur, Crystal Blanche, Ashley Thons, Lindsey Ferguson, Kristen Conley, Meredith Brown, Rissa Knaff, Shayne-Kenneth Jones, Malone Thomas, Tatiana Zappardino, Ross Frontz, Jessica Bonano, Kylie Farrell, Melissa Escobar, Tony Williams, Michael Coley, Cecelia Vega and Maggie Dodd.
Jacksonville University is located at 2800 University Blvd N. Curtain time is 7:30 sharp, with matinee at 2:30 pm on Sunday.
Ragtime – The Musical
by DICK KEREKES