Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ragtime, Mercury Summer Stock

Sure, it seems that any theater calling itself “summer stock” should be happening in a cozy barn with hay stacked in the corner, over by the pitchforks and spitoon.

Defying that cliché, Mercury Summer Stock takes place in a capacious air-conditioned auditorium on the Notre Dame College campus. But other than the location, this theater has all the youthful zest and spirit one associates with summer stock. And the current production of Ragtime is a good example.

This story of the racial and gender turns American society was making at the turn of the last century features some truly lovely tunes by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics). And the book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, has plenty of exposed edges. The three groups that collide--privileged white folk from the suburbs, urban blacks and recent immigrants--tell a contentious story that is still spilling out on our 24-hour news channels today.

There are enough fine voices in the MSS cast, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault, to give voice to these largely sung-through thoughts. Particularly outstanding are Nicholas Bernard as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a proud man destroyed by violence and bigotry, and Nicole Sumlin in an evocative performance as his wife Sarah.

The strong ensemble also features Dana Aber as Mother, singing a evocative rendition of “Back to Before” and Sara Masterson as the beautiful but dippy showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (“The Girl on the Swing”).

Other roles are mixed blessings as Jonathan Bova does a nice job acting his “American dream” role of the immigrant Tateh, but his songs too often flatline. And oddly, the excellent actor Brian Marshall never quite commands the stage as Houdini, the master illusionist who dominated the popular imagination of this time period.

Creative staging and choreography by Brault, utilizing a raft of wooden chairs to stand in for everything from a Model T Ford to you name it, helps makes this production a memorable event.

Small quibbles aside, this is a dandy story with music that will transport you back to that era some recall as innocent, but which was as rife with pain and difficulty as our own time today.

Through July 20, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Regina Hall, Notre Dame College, Green Road between Mayfield and Cedar, South Euclid.

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