Sunday, April 9, 2023

"Ragtime" by Morris Park Players at Edison High School

It's rare that I get a chance to see community theater, with the plethora of theater in this town (e.g., 20+ shows are opening in the next three weeks). But I happened to have a free night, so I was thrilled to check out Ragtime by Morris Park Players, a Northeast Minneapolis community theater that's been around for 70 years. I became aware of this company last year when they did Falsettos, of which I'm still waiting for a professional #TCTheater production since the recent successful revival. I was super impressed by this risky choice, and their execution of the tricky work. Their current show is perhaps even more ambitious in scope and theme. Although Ragtime is a more familiar show than Falsettos (two local productions in the last 11 years), its huge cast, intricate score, and themes of racism, immigration, class, gender, and labor rights make it a challenging show. While performances are a bit uneven and there may be a few technical issues, as to be expected with community theater, I'm once again impressed by Morris Park Player's execution of this work, the level of talent in this community, and the heart and passion they put into the show. Ragtime continues through next weekend only.

John Brownell as Coalhouse with the ensemble
(photo by Loco/FX Photography)
Ragtime tells the story of three families - an upper class White family, an African American family, and an immigrant family. The three families' lives become intertwined with each other, as well as with several historical events and figures, such as anarchist Emma Goldmanmagician Harry Houdini, and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit. The hero of our story is Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime piano player in love with a poor servant named Sarah. Coalhouse's journey takes a drastic turn when he's faced with discrimination and tragedy. Sarah lives with the seemingly perfect well-to-do family consisting of a father, a mother, and a son, as well as mother's younger brother and father. Curiously, these characters (with the exception of the son, Edgar) don't have names, so that they could be anyone or everyone. Mother keeps the home fires burning while Father explores the world, and Younger Brother is on a journey all his own, always looking for something to cling to and finding it in unfortunate places (or persons). Finally, at the center of our third family is a poor immigrant trying to make a better life for his daughter. Tateh's path crosses with Mother's several times; in fact all of the characters in this story are connected somehow, and what each does affects the others.*

"What a game!" (photo by Loco/FX Photography)
This is one of the largest casts I've seen on a local stage in a while - some three dozen people on the stage of the Edison High School theater. Thanks to director Adan Varela, it never feels chaotic or crowded, but like a full and complex world. Transitions run smoothly, with two massive triangular pieces reminiscent of scaffolding or iron fire escapes being moved around the stage to create various backgrounds (scenic design by Jami Newstrom). The 20-piece (20!) orchestra sits onstage behind the scaffolding, and does a wonderful job playing this gorgeous Tony-winning score under music director Walter Tambor.

Mother (Angela Walberg), Father (Matthew Allen Nicholson),
and son (Chloe Sorenson, photo by Loco/FX Photography)
Highlights in the huge and talented cast include Marley Ritchie with an absolutely gorgeous performance as Sarah (and also choreographed the ragtime dancing), Angela Walberg with a lovely and nuanced performance as Mother, Matthew Allen Nicholson with such a beautiful rich deep voice as Father I'm wondering why I haven't seen him before, Trevor Rolando as an empathetic Tateh, Mary Palazzolo as a strong Emma Goldman, and last but not least, young Chloe Sorenson opening the show as Edgar and more than holding her own amongst the adults ("warn the Duke!").

What Hamilton is to the founding of this country, Ragime is to turn of the century pre-WWI America, with the story told primarily through the lives of average Americans, plus a few run-ins with famous names from history. Ragtime is about the American Dream, and what happens when that dream is denied to certain segments of its population. It's almost eerie how this show written 25 years ago about a time in our history over 100 years ago is still so relevant. You can hear the Black Lives Matter movement in Coalhouse's demands to be respected and treated with dignity and fairness, the struggles of an immigrant trying to make a better life for his family is still happening today, and the intersection of class, gender, money, and power still color our daily lives. Thanks to Morris Park Players for taking on this important, thrilling, gorgeous piece of music-theater and breathing such life into it!

*Plot summary borrowed from what I've written about previous productions.