REVIEW: Ragtime (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Drury Lane scores big with epic musical “Ragtime”

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Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
 
Ragtime
 
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
by
Terrance McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics)
directed/choreographed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook (map)
through May 23 (more info)

By Katy Walsh

‘What can happen in a year?’ Father’s question is an expectation that life is simple and predictable.

BF1C0838 The reality is birth, death, emancipation, persecution, obsession, syncopation. In 1906, the regularity in life takes unexpected turns as Drury Lane Oakbrook presents Ragtime The Musical. The show focuses on the lives of three groups: WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. In the New York suburbs, a wealthy family breaks the monotony with wild excursions and celebrity stalking. In Harlem, a successful black piano player decides to search for his lost love. Just off the boat, an Jewish immigrant artist and his daughter arrive with nothing but optimistic anticipation. Three distinctly different rhythms unexpectedly intersect to create a new tune. Ragtime celebrates a year in American history by paralleling the adaption of ragtime music with socio-economic changes of the time period. The results are a stunning history lesson intertwined with melodies of hope and change.

Under the skillful direction and choreography of Rachel Rockwell, the tempo never misses a beat. Rockwell strikes all the right notes with this multi-talented cast. Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) is the powerhouse of emotional range in song and act. His tune changes throughout the show – regret, love, vengeance. Darrington connects the audience with his story based on heart wrenching hope. His “The Wheels of a Dream” duet with Valisia LeKae (Sarah) is flawless. LeKae is a perfect match-up and their onstage chemistry is the epic-love-story-kind. Cory Goodrich (Mother) is marvelous in an understated and nonchalant way. Goodrich’s character changes her family’s life dramatically with simple choices. Her transformation is most baffling to Father played by Larry Adams. In a pivotal song, Adams is perplexed as he sings, ‘I thought I knew what love was but these lovers play different music.’

With inspirational paternal love, Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) chases a train for a teary-eyed audience impact. Alongside the principals, smaller and famous roles engage curiosity. Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord) influences as a social reformer. Evelyn Nesbit (Summer Naomi Smart) is the Brittany Spears of the time period…whee! Harry Houdini (Stef Tovar) mystifies as a successful immigrant. Booker T. Washington (James Earl Jones II) commands integration and respect.

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Surprisingly, this blockbuster musical starts with a stark stage. The introduction of characters is a popped up portrait of perfection. Literally, group entrances are elevated from below stage. As the three groups multiply across the stage, the unique flair of costume distinction, designed by Santo Loquasto, is a spectacular visual. Costumes, projections, lighting, moments of tasty eye candy decorate this show. From silhouettes marching to swimmers bathing, the imagery dances to the ragtime.

And there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. Giving the nation a new syncopation.  The people called it Ragtime!’

Paralleling life’s happenstance, my performance had some twists not necessarily planned. There seemed to be an issue with lighting up the solo singers in the first few scenes. A momentary blip broke the backdrop illusion with a ‘Microsoft word computer screen’ projection. Initially, the audio seemed hollow. I was uncertain if it was a microphone or acoustic issue. It either cleared up or my engrossment made it a moot point. All in all, this production was amazing. It left me reinforced that a gesture of kindness changes life’s courses and bewildered about men’s obsessions with cars.

 
Rating: ★★★★
 

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Review: Theatre Seven’s “Cooperstown”

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Theatre Seven presents:

Cooperstown

by Brian Golden
directed by Brian Stojak
thru December 20th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Intertwined aspects of race, love and Civil Rights have been examined ad infinitum in many a previous drama. But with Cooperstown, playwright Brian Golden brings an original perspective to such well-trod topics. The times they are a changin’ in this 1962-set drama. Golden frames those remarkable changes within the context of something altogether ordinary, a Cooperstown diner. Here, as employees toil for a minimal $1.40 an hour, a monumental combination of baseball, racism, social unrest and the arrival of Jackie Robinson collide during one flashpoint weekend.

Cooperstown-9 It’s the basis for a wonderful story and as directed with understated nuance by Brian Stojak, it’s told well on the whole. There’s a refreshing lack of anguished over-emoting by the able cast, even when (especially when) events take on painful, life-changing significance. That’s the upside. The downside goes to the nitty-gritty of Golden’s script. The overall story has terrific potential. Its particulars are pocked with nagging holes and improbabilities that erode its basis in truth.

The first of these is snags apparent almost immediately, as Junior (Cecil Burroughs), the diner’s black supervisor, labors over a notebook. This “report,” Junior insists, is the key to a better life, as it is certain to get him a promotion from white diner owner Jimmy Fletcher. Never mind that Fletcher hasn’t set foot in the restaurant in years – Junior speaks of the notebook as if it possessed magic. It will, he asserts, secure him the title of manager, a pay raise and better working conditions all around. Burroughs plays Junior as a man of intelligence and depth; it simply doesn’t ring true that this character would so naively believe his situation would instantly improve simply by presenting a worn ledger full of hand-written notes to a boss he hasn’t even seen in years. The more Junior talks about how his battered notebook is going to change everything, the more artificial Cooperstown sounds.

There’s a parallel contrivance and lack of specificity with several other plot elements. A photo-op with Jackie Robinson in the diner is somehow directly connected to Governor Rockefeller’s patronage plans. A black protest group defined by the letter “S” (underscored and never explained) decides that “taking down” the diner will achieve…well precisely what it will achieve is as muddled as the link between Robinson’s meal there and the Governor’s job appointments. Finally, there’s a scene late in the story that requires immediate action (to say more would reveal spoilers) by Junior and the staff. But instead of tending to the crisis at hand, all and sundry stand around talking for a prolonged period. Emotional exposition trumps situational veracity.

A different but equally vexing problem is apparent in the all-important, star-crossed love story between Junior and Fletcher’s wife, Grace (Emjoy Gavino.) Despite otherwise fine performances by Burroughs and Gavino, they have no chemistry between them.

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Far believable is the sweet romance between waitress and baseball stat savant Dylan (Tracey Kaplan, sometimes truly difficult to understand thanks to her machine-gun speed speech) and Huck (Chance Bone), a plain-spoken out-of-towner with a similar passion for America’s Pastime. It’s a lovely subplot, although it wouldn’t hurt to tone down Dylan’s tomboy streak a tad – when she becomes almost physically ill after kissing Huck, she seems more like a prepubescent girl than a young woman.

Golden’s got hold of the core of an engaging, important story. It’s got a fine setting in Michelle N. Warner’s believably lived in, detailed diner. Would that the details were more rooted in probability.

 

Rating: ★★

 

Cooperstown continues through Dec. 20 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, Tickets are $18 general admission, $14 students, seniors and industry. For more information go to www.theatreseven.org or call 773/404-7336.