Light Opera of New Jersey continues its 24th Season of operetta and musical theatre with a production of Ragtime the Musical at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, that is…….. simply sensational! It is the best thing we have seen since the LONJ’s ‘Hunchback’ a year ago. This production directed by Jeffrey Fiorello with musical direction by Charles Santoro and choreography by Aimee Mitacchione has it all; stirring story of early 1900 discrimination against immigrants and ‘people of color’ (sound familiar?), outstanding spot-on casting, fabulous voices, dazzling dancing, gorgeous costumes, impressive imaginative set, etc. This production is worthy of any stage on either side of the Hudson River.
Ragtime is fiction, but it includes a number of historical figures including Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Stanford White, and Emma Goldman. It is set in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York and powerfully tells three distinctly different tales; a Jewish immigrant and motherless daughter who start life in America on the lower East Side, a daring young ragtime musician in Harlem….both seeking the American promise of a better life, and an upper-class WASP wife living in lily white New Rochelle.
The casting of the three could not be more perfect: the immigrant Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, is sensitively played by Daniel Peter Vissers. He 'lights up the stage’ with his sensitive and yet energetic portrayal of Tateh. The black musician, Coalhouse Walker, is played by the impressive voiced Dante Sterling with his leading man bearing; and the caring Mother is Christina Ryan. She sparkles with her solo turns, particularly, ’Back to Before’ in the second act.
The supporting players are outstanding; the always impressive pro Susan Spiedel nails Emma Goldman; opera veteran Kevin Johnson is Booker T. Washington, the most important African American of his time; Amber Brown is Coalhouse’s lover and mother of his child; Colleen Renee Lis has fun with the scantily clad vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit. Playing the Father, a totally unsympathetic role, is Keith White. The cast also includes two talented children; Justin Roth is The Little Boy and Grace Lustig is Tateh’s little girl.
Very special recognition is in order for: music director Charles Santoro and his fine orchestra (Ragtime’s music ranges from marches, to cakewalks, to gospel and ragtime); Aimee Sukel Mitacchione for the choreography; stage manager Pamela Wilczynski; and the terrific ensemble.
Special calls of ‘Bravo’ are reserved for director Jeffrey Fiorello and producer Bill Corson.
Of course, Ragtime was ‘created’ by Terrence McNally -book, Lynn Ahrens- lyrics, and Stephen Flaherty- music. It is based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime was the winner of the 1998 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestration (in addition to 10 other nominations/individual awards),
Tickets at www.sopacnow.org or by calling 973-313-2787.
Special note: Several years ago a high school in New Jersey faced attempts to censor their production of Ragtime due to the frank language. In response, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Dramatists Guild of America, and Arts Integrity Initiative, the organizations had urged the school officials “to reconsider and reverse [the] decision to censor Ragtime.”
They stated, “Ragtime’s use of racial slurs is an historically accurate and necessary aspect of a play that explores race relations in the early 1900s. Ragtime helps minors understand the brutalities of racism and the anger that has historically accumulated, partly through the use of racially offensive language. In contrast, censorship of such language ignores historical reality and presents a falsified, whitewashed view of race relations. Censoring the play will only perpetuate ignorance of our past.
“While we empathize with concerns about the emotionally disturbing effects of hearing or uttering racial slurs, we believe such concerns are to be resolved through educational means, not by censoring a renowned text. In our experience, similar concerns (around productions of To Kill a Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men, for instance) have best been confronted through dialogue rather than censorship.”
The play went on uncensored.