American Dreams & Nightmares

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A housewife and mother of her time.  A Latvian immigrant struggling to realize the American Dream.  A ragtime musician about to have his life torn asunder by the blight of racism.  These are three people living life in America at the turn of the 20th century and their stories and the intersecting of their lives forms the plot of Ragtime by Terrence McNally with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and based off the novel by E.L. Doctorow. It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This has been one of the more uniquely crafted musicals I’ve seen.  Usually, it seems like the songs are worked around the story of the show.  This production goes the opposite direction.  Due to the sheer size of the score, Ragtime is more like an opera and the story is worked between the songs.  And it works because the story part of the show is actually three meticulously crafted short stories which are skillfully woven together with a blend of fictional and real-life characters.

I can see why the score won a Tony Award as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens crafted a doozy which has something for everyone.  There’s some foot stomping fun, tender love songs, and haunting numbers that will reach right in and squeeze the emotion out of your heart.  I was particularly impressed by the constant use of a singular ragtime number which either served as a springboard from which other songs would emerge or be changed up emotionally to suit the particular moment of the show.

Kimberly Faith Hickman supplies a devastating bit of direction to the production.  Hitting the beats of this show is quite tricky due to the multiple storylines which constantly trade places, but Ms Hickman manages to do so with an effortless ease.  The staging is precisely on point as it utilizes the entire stage and never is there a point where I wasn’t seeing the face of an actor.  The work of her performers is deadly accurate as they never miss a trick.

The night was loaded with sterling performances such as those provided by Jon Flower as Younger Brother, a carefree young man who transforms into a fighter for equal rights, though he doesn’t go about it in the best way.  Flower is particularly moving with his singing in “He Wanted to Say” as he tries to support Coalhouse Walker.  Joey Hartshorn is gripping as the anarchist Emma Goldman who wants to better the lives of the poor workers and bring down the rich and powerful.  Dara Hogan is going to make you cry with her turn as Sarah, the lover of Coalhouse Walker.  Ms Hogan begins as a broken, mute mother whose life has fallen apart along with her relationship with Walker.  She blooms to life as she and Walker rekindle their love before tragedy blows their lives apart due to racism’s malevolent hand.  Ms Hogan has a wonderful upper alto which shines in “New Music” and “Wheels of a Dream”.

Jodi Vaccaro is stunning as Mother.  Ms Vaccaro’s Mother is the nexus character as her life intersects with those of Coalhouse Walker and Tateh and her experiences with them change and deepen her.  When the show starts, Mother is very much a woman of her era.  She takes care of the home and raises the children and her husband is the boss.  But that begins to change when she takes in the homeless Sarah and her illegitimate child.  This breaking of the social and racial barriers of her time opens her eyes to how things are in their world and begin her journey of personal growth as she stomps those barriers flat.

Ms Vaccaro brings a genuine warmth and kindness to the role of Mother and I loved her slow and steady realization to the hardness of life outside of her upper-class walls as it made her character arc truly satisfying.  Ms Vaccaro also has a sweet and beautiful singing voice with shining moments in the touching “Our Children” and the revelatory “Back to Before”.

Mike Palmreuter gives an amazingly realistic performance as Tateh.  Palmreuter’s Tateh provides a very frank look at the plight of immigrants who came to America for the promise of the streets paved with gold only to discover a very different reality.  Palmreuter is brilliant as he plays a man struggling to realize the American Dream.  He begins as bright eyed and determined to reap the promises of the New World only to be beaten down by its harsh realities where the only thing that keeps him going is his daughter’s survival.  But it’s all worth it as his struggles do yield the promised fruit due to his perseverance.  Palmreuter has a great lower tenor and he knows how to use it emotionally from the hopeful “Success” to the bittersweet “Nothing Like the City” to the triumphant “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”

Over the past few seasons, J. Isaiah Smith has evolved into one of the city’s most dynamic talents.  He can sing, dance, and act and his performance as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. allows him to excel at all three at once as well as turn in a performance that puts him in the running for a second straight Fonda-McGuire Award.

In many ways, Smith’s Walker is already living the American Dream.  He’s a successful musician, a new father, his relationship with his lover is on the mend, and he can even afford a Model T Ford.  But he realizes the American Nightmare when racism not only takes away all that he’s worked for, but also denies him an avenue to justice until he feels compelled to take matters into his own hands.

Smith’s interpretation of Walker is a bit of elegant mastery.  Before his life is blasted, he’s a sweet, sensitive, happy go lucky man determined to fix his broken relationship with his lover and be a father.  After the fall, he becomes a smoldering cauldron of anger whose rampage is still tempered by a bit of honor as he’s limiting it to the bigot and the entity that bigot represents and will gladly stop once he metes out justice.  What I liked best was that he doesn’t completely lose his humanity and still makes the right choice in the end.

Smith has a mighty vocal range that soars between deeply baritone notes to high tenor ones.  Some of his best numbers were the raucous “Getting’ Ready Rag”, “Justice”, and the determined “Make Them Hear You”.

Lindsay Pape’s costumes provided an accurate depiction of life at the turn of the century with the short pants of the boys, the double- breasted suits, hats and bowlers, and the almost Victorian gowns of the wealthy women.  Jim Othuse has designed a series of set bits that could easily be moved in and out from the burgundy sitting room of Mother’s home to Coalhouse Walker’s nightclub to the posters and seaside of Atlantic City.  Michelle Garrity provides some scintillating choreography especially with “Getting’ Ready Rag”.  Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco have cooked up some crucial sounds from the lolling waves outside Atlantic City to the puttering of Walker’s Model T to the gunshots and explosions of Walker’s rampage.  Jim Boggess and his orchestra never miss a note with their fun and energetic take on this show’s score.

In the end, Ragtime not only provides a great night of entertainment, but it also provides an honest look at the lives of all classes of people at turn of the century America and I think it serves as a potent reminder that we have come a long way as a people, but there’s still a bit of road left to travel.

Ragtime plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through June 30.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $32 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800, or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Some parental discretion is advised due to racial epithets and a little strong language.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

(Photo supplied by Robertson Photgraphy)