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RAGTIME at Musicalfare just as topical as ever with clever staging, fine acting, and robust choral numbers

THE BASICS:  RAGTIME, the musical, with book, music, and lyrics by Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens respectively, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, directed by Randall Kramer, with choreography by Michael Walline, opened on February 13 and runs until March 17. For most days, only single tickets are available for Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, but Sundays at 2 are all sold out at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street, on Daemen College’s campus in Amherst (839-8540). Tip: enter from Getzville Road. Full service bar in beautifully appointed lounge. www.musicalfare.com Runtime: 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, RAGTIME takes us “back” (oh, how little things have changed) to the early 20th Century to show the struggles of African Americans through the tribulations of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician and his girlfriend Sarah as well as the difficulties of recent immigrants, represented by Tateh and his daughter, Jewish immigrants from Latvia. Throughout the evening we meet actual historical figures including anarchist Emma Goldman, illusionist Harry Houdini, actress and “Gibson Girl” inspiration Evelyn Nesbit, educator Booker T. Washington, financier/robber baron J. P. Morgan, industrialist Henry Ford, architect Stanford White and the man who shot him, Harry Kendall Thaw, as well as polar explorers Admiral Peary and Matthew Henson.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: This musical packs a lot of talent on the relatively small stage including, in alphabetical order, Kyle Baran, Noah Bielecki, Brian Brown, George L. Brown, Taylor Carlson, Charmagne Chi, Adam Eckmair, Bennett Goldberg, Jake Hayes, Stevie Jackson, Dominique Kempf, Jon May, Ricky Needham, Lorenzo Shawn Parnell, Marc Sacco, Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell, Michael Wachowiak, and Alexandria Watts. Several take on different roles.

There are no weak points in the casting, at all. At all.

And kudos to Dialect Coach Amanda Sharpe, who came up with believable accents which stayed consistent throughout the evening. In general, I’m not a fan of local actors taking on accents because it’s just another damn thing that can go wrong. And, hey, we’re all willing to suspend our disbelief in other ways, so I don’t think that accents are all that important. But here, they worked. Bravo!

Kudos to Dialect Coach Amanda Sharpe, who came up with believable accents which stayed consistent throughout the evening.

MusicalFare sets by Chris Cavanagh are always smart, but in RAGTIME things were more ingeniously arranged than usual including the backstage photo projections which added a level of realism while filling the stage up without taking any valuable real estate away from the actors. And, this might not sound like much, but it was a telling detail: Every set change (with set elements on casters) was choreographed so that the action never stopped. Choreographer Michael Walline said the idea was to be “like turning the pages of a [Doctorow] book.” Would that other Western New York theaters took a page from Mr. Walline’s book.

Unlike some, I found the surprisingly small orchestra (two pianos, one percussionist) led by Theresa Quinn to be more than adequate, especially since so much of the music is “piano rags” which had a very strong revival in the 1970s. I remember at that time my first radio show on WBFO was all about piano music “From Rags to Rondos.” So, trust me, I’m a fan. However, because the “orchestration,” as it were, lacked variation, it became apparent how many times composer Stephen Flaherty went back to the same tunes or leitmotifs. Over and over. A few more instruments would have covered that up.

Special kudos to Costume and Hair, Wig, and Make-up Designers Kari and Susan Drozd. I’m not sure who all was backstage (Production Stage Manager is listed as Chris Cavanagh) but the lightning-fast costume changes, and they were dramatic, were a big part of the evening’s fun.

And, once again, MusicalFare has already sold out several performances while those that are left are down to single seats here and there.

UP NEXT: MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET will be reprised at Shea’s 710 Theatre (www.710theatre.org) from March 14 through March 24. Then, back at the MusicalFare stage, it’s LATE IN THE EVENING: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO PAUL SIMON conceived by RAGTIME choreographer Michael Walline, up from April 24 through May 26.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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