E.L. Doctorow's sprawling 1975 novel Ragtime, focusing on fictional families and famous personages in America near the turn of the 20th century, became a Broadway musical in 1998. It garnered Tony awards that year for Best Book, Best Score, and Best Featured Actress (Audra McDonald). A touring company of Ragtime - The Musical recently visited St. Louis' Peabody Opera House for a two-night engagement.
Adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally (Book), Stephen Flaherty (Music), and Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics), the potent mix of fictional characters and real historical people, and powerful songs, can make for a stirring experience, although in this particular production, the result was a little less stirring than it might have been.
Three family story lines set the stage in New York City from 1906 to 1914: ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Chris Sams) and Sarah (Leslie Jackson), two Black residents of Harlem; Father (Troy Bruchwalski), Mother (Kate Turner, excellent voice), Mother's Younger Brother (Donald Coggin), and son Edgar (Colin Myers), a well-off family from New Rochelle; Tateh (Matthew Curiano) and his daughter (Cara Myers), Latvian immigrants coming to find a better life in America. The meeting and mixing of these disparate story lines, combined with actual historical figures such as vaudeville performers Harry Houdini (Mark Alpert) and Evelyn Nesbit (Jillian Van Niel), carmaker Henry Ford (John Anker Bow), educator Booker T. Washington (Jeffrey Johnson II), industrialist J.P. Morgan (Todd Berkich), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Sandy Zwier), flesh out the two-and-a-half-hour production. Issues that lend gravitas to the story are the rise of women's rights, racial conflict, the plight of immigrants, and the rise of the American movie industry.
In general, Ragtime - The Musical was well done. Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge kept things moving, pace-wise and choreography-wise. The costumes were colorful and the lighting suited the various moods well. However, minor issues kept the production from hitting it out of the ballpark (apt because one of the numbers involves Baseball!). The set is minimalist, with simple projections on the background cyc curtain to establish place, but the two-piece set of stairs, moved into various configurations, became tiresome to see after a while. The sound board operator was late on a number of microphone cues, causing lost dialog and lyrics. One character's physical gyrations at times made an already difficult-to-understand accent even more difficult to understand. And it's a good thing I knew all the lyrics going in because the words of several musical numbers, whether because of the sound system, or the actors' failure to enunciate, were difficult to discern. That's a shame because it's a great score.
Minor points, perhaps, but even minor points do add up. Nonetheless, I felt fortunate to have seen Ragtime live once again.
The St. Louis Actors Studio has opened a strong production of Anton Chekov's Ivanov. Technically it really presses the limits of the Studio's tiny stage, but with a very strong cast we are given a moving glimpse of Chekhov's groping toward a theatrical voice.
Ivanov is the first of Chekhov's major plays. In this Tom Stoppard translation we meet many of what are to become Chekhov's "usual suspects": the idle rural gentry, the "superfluous man," the conscientious and idealistic medical doctor, the innocent ingénue who loves the wrong man, the variously pathetic and comic hangers-on at the estate.
It's an early confirmation of Chekhov's position as the most non-judgmental of all dramatists.
Nikolai Ivanov is at the end of his rope. Five years ago he married (for love as well as for some money) the lovely Jewess, Sarah. Upon her marriage she converted to Christianity and changed her name to Anna -- which caused her parents to disinherit her. So the expected great dowry vanished. Since then things have not gone well. Ivanov is deeply in debt and has no prospects at all. Moreover, Anna is dying of tuberculosis--and Ivanov can't afford to give her a restorative trip to the Crimea.
Ivanov's behavior under this great stress is what caused critics at the time to condemn the play. Whenever he can Ivanov abandons Anna and goes to visit the family of an old college friend, Paul Lebedev. It's a congenial, gossipy household and it includes a young daughter, Sasha, who is infatuated with Ivanov. Ivanov, forever moaning about his great misery and depression, is to most observers simply waiting for his loving wife to die so that he can marry Sasha. Anna's attendant physician, Dr. Lvov, constantly castigates Ivanov for his treatment of his wife. Yet Chekhov refuses to condemn Ivanov. And he seems to mock the righteous and moralistic Dr. Lvov.
About these two characters Chekhov once said: "If the audience will leave the theatre with the conviction that Ivanovs are scoundrels and that Doctors Lvov are great men, then I'll have to give up and fling my pen to the devil."
Strong performances abound. Drew Battles has the huge title role, and he looks every inch Ivanov. It's a fine performance, but Chekhov has filled the role with self-pity, and it's difficult for us not to view Ivanov as a feckless whiner. With a bit more nuance, a bit more subtext -- and, in that relentless flow of words, some pauses to help us sense emotional transitions -- we might more clearly see that though Ivanov is feckless he is not heartless.
But it's a long show, and I know that director Wayne Salomon has a sharp stick to prod his actors into keeping a lively pace -- lest the play run even longer than its two-and-a-half hours.
The cast is filled with familiar, strong, and beloved actors. Anna is played by Julie Layton, who charms us despite her struggles with consumption. She conveys a glowing, tender love for her husband. The eccentric old Count Shabelsky is played by Bobby Miller. With wild Einsteinian white hair and a gravelly voice way in the back of his throat this is another of Miller's iconic alte kaker roles. What a comic wonder! But (a minor quibble): Shabelsky is a Russian count. A time or two, when he's gently teasing Anna, Chekhov has him assume a Yiddish accent. With Miller's very eccentric voice it's never quite clear when Shabelsky is not playing the comic Jew.
David Wasilak brings an exuberant silliness to the role of Borkin, Ivanov's estate manager, who is full of a thousand wacky schemes to make money.
Teresa Doggett makes a true virago of Zinaida, Ivanov's major creditor. When she screams to a servant, "BRING SOME JAM!! GOOSEBERRY, OR SOMETHING!" she's as fierce as the Red Queen crying "OFF WITH HIS HEAD!!"
Dr. Lvov is played by Reginald Pierre. Pierre is usually a most graceful actor, but here, though he's emotionally confident--even forceful--he seems almost uncomfortable in his body--almost fidgeting. I was puzzled by this choice.
Alexandra Petrullo brings sweetness and innocence to young Sasha, whose Florence-Nightingale heart sees a challenge in the troubled Ivanov.
To me, the most strikingly successful performance of all is that of B. Weller as Lebedev. I've watched Weller for many years and I've often been impressed by his engaging boyishness. Now, suddenly, Weller is filled with maturity and gravitas -- and subtlety and subtext! And that lovely good humor is still there. Even his make-up is perfect; it shows the slightly florid complexion of the heavy drinker that Lebedev is. Bravo to Mr. Weller!
Other fine performances are given by Cara Barresi, Shannon Nara, Jan Meyer, Clayton Bury and Léerin Campbell (the graceful maid always at hand to refill the vodka).
The beautiful costumes are by the astonishingly capable Teresa Doggett.
Sound design by director Wayne Salomon is a strange assortment of classic jazz, blues and R&B -- music that evokes the wee hours in a smoky bar. Lots of whispering steel brushes--(which to my knowledge had not yet appeared in 19th Century Russia). But the music does convey the melancholy that fills Ivanov.
Patrick Huber gives a striking and curious set. Chekhov uses four different sets -- not something easily done at the Gaslight, with it's tiny stage and no back-stage space. In this play we see a simple deep square room. Walls are of raw planking with (strangely indeed!) thin vertical deep blue fluorescent tubes adorning the walls. I don't understand it, but it works!
All of the furniture for all of the scenes is just there on stage, and is moved as necessary. And as if to crowd the space even further, actors do not leave the stage when they exit a scene; they simply take seats at the rear -- sometimes facing away from the scene being played, sometimes watching it. At times this is a little confusing, and all in all there is a great impediment to traffic; there's hardly space to move. But it does increase the sense of entrapment; these people simply cannot escape.
Ivanov is not great Chekhov, but I am most grateful to the St. Louis Actors Studio for mounting it. It introduces Chekhov's wonderful flair for blending the tragic with the absurd. This is epitomized in moment of hilarity when one after another of the central characters bursts into loud weeping over the wreckage of their lives, while poor Lebedev tries desperately to calm things -- and finally simply screams, "For God's sake SHUT UP!"
Lee Blessing has written many plays, mostly good ones. We've seen several of them here -- Eleemosynary most recently, Lonesome Hollow, A Walk in the Woods, his best known and, for me, his best. Now we have Great Falls at the West End Players Guild. I like it the least.
I could never quite believe in its two characters. I had the uneasy feeling that the playwright was still trying to get a hold on them. That's unusual for a playwright as experienced as Blessing, though he does like to explore uncharted territory in fresh ways.
But must young women characters in stories today all have been sexually abused by their fathers and raped by two of their classmates? Yes, these things do happen and they are terrible, but when they are used so often, it can be difficult for a playwright to make it seem real and not something easy to reach for to punch up his story. Not that Shannon Lampkin, who plays the young woman just turning 18, doesn't try to make it real. She makes me almost believe in the character, until another too-easy plot twist is introduced and I groan.
She is traveling with her step-father. He's picked her up at her summer job because he says he wants to talk to her, to try to re-establish some connection with her, connections broken when her mother divorced him for his infidelities.
The short talk turns into a weeks-long tour of the northern Rockies from their starting point in Fremont, Nebraska. She accuses him of kidnapping her. But she has a cell phone and even talks to her mother. She could be rescued. Eventually we find out why she isn't, what she wants from the trip.
But I never was sure what he wanted from it. He's obviously a troubled man, searching for something, but what it is and why he thought his step-daughter was where he could find it, I don't know. Again, the character lacked reality for me. Again, the actor playing him, Isaiah DiLorenzo, was trying. His range seemed a little limited, but I'm not sure what more he could dig out of the script.
Tom Kopp is a shrewd and sensitive director. It isn't his fault that it gets tedious sometimes.
Bill Dechand's projections supply context without being distracting on Stephanie Draper's flexible set. Stage manager Valleri Dillard, props wrangler Jackie Aumer and their crew shift scenes efficiently. Susan Kopp's sound design and original song enrich the experience. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave designed the costumes.
Great Falls starts with an odd premise and I was never satisfied by what it did with it.
The production continues at West End Players Guild through Sunday afternoon, April 17, with tickets at 314-667-5686.
It's really more of a pageant and celebration than a play. It's called Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life and it's the fruit of collaboration between Fontbonne University's Bosnian Memory Project and playwright Deanna Jent, a professor in the Find Arts Department and artistic director of the Mustard Seed Theatre.
As you know, St. Louis -- and especially South St. Louis -- has been blessed with massive immigration from Bosnia. In the early 1990's, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the remnant Serbia tried to roll back the clock of history some six hundred years -- to when the Ottoman Empire conquered Bosnia-Herzegovina and brought a forced Islamization.
Now the Balkans have a deep and rich and very troubled history. No less than six civilizations have fought through the centuries over the region called Bosnia. For a vivid look into the sufferings of Bosnia under the Ottomans I highly recommend Nobel laureate Ivo Andrič's novel, The Bridge on the Drina.
From 1992 to 1995 at the hands of the Serbian army many thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered; many thousands fled. Now St. Louis is home to more Bosnian-born people than any city outside Bosnia. And their story has been one of great success. Over the years America has opened its arms to many peoples fleeing the horrors of persecution, of war, of disaster -- from the Pilgrims to the Irish potato famine to this recent genocidal war in the Balkans. And the Bosnian-Americans of St. Louis are proving once again that America truly is the land of opportunity, and that the American Dream is still possible.
The play's first week-end was at the Gribic Banquet Hall, an annex of the beautiful Grbic Restaurant, where the food itself is a glorious celebration of the Bosnian heritage.
The cast of ten portray many characters -- all of whom experienced the traumatic purging of their people from their homeland. We see childhood memories in Bosnia; we see the Starbucks chat of well-assimilated teen-agers in America. We learn of flights to Denmark and to Germany. We see the contrasts among schools: the forced religion classes in Serbia, the demanding standards of German high-schools, the rather easy American schools. We watch the difficulties and rejection encountered by a young Bosnian widow who marries a Serb friend. (My goodness, in Bosnia all the Serbs, Croats and Muslims used to be friendly neighbors!)
Binding these stories together somehow -- dreamily, poetically -- we watch a sort of dance fable. It's the old story of the wolf and the lamb, drawn all the way from Ǽsop. The fable shows that, regardless of all rational arguments, corrupt power will justify itself in devouring the innocent. Here a lamb, Aska, dreams of becoming a ballerina. When she meets the wolf she can only survive by continuously dancing -- it's the Dance for Life. It represents the stalwart, persevering struggle of these desperate immigrants to escape, to find refuge, to settle, to find work, to prosper.
Melissa Gerth does beautiful work as the dancing lamb, supported by the rest of the cast who, donning charming lamb's ears, become a whole baaa-ing flock. The cast includes a mix of Bosnian-Americans and familiar faces of St. Louis actors -- all of whom do fine work. Some of the dialogue is in Bosanski (the Bosnian dialect of Serbo-Croatian), but the meaning is always clear. Director Adam Flores manages his ten actors very nicely on a minimalist set by Kyra Bishop.
It's a most heartening and hopeful evening celebrating the Bosnian-American experience. Running just under an hour, Bosnian/American: The Dance for Life plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. April 21-May 1. Performances take place at the Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre on Fontbonne University campus.
I've seen Thornton Wilder's Our Town numerous times. Watching it now is something like the comfort of an old shoe. But I still get a little moist in the eyes when Emily painfully realizes how little of life we appreciate each moment as we live it. I did again at the current Hawthorne Players' production, with an Emily, Jessica Gillard Taylor, who fully realizes her character's turbulent emotions in that postmortem third act.
Wilder's Transcendental thoughts about death and what follows give him a framework for extending his exploration of his characters. Beth Workman's Mrs. Gibbs, Emily's mother-in-law, is still rock solid. And Patrick Brueggen's Simon Stimson, the suicidal alcoholic choir director, still bitterly complains.
The third act is not the only place that Wilder darkens what could be mistaken for a purely idyllic picture of American small-town life a hundred years ago. The wedding of Emily and George is no simple, happy celebration. Both bride and groom almost flee from the church, terrified by this shedding of youthful innocence. Even Emily's mother, played by Kathy Fugate, who seemed to be having projection problems when I was there, laments to the audience about the cruel ignorance with which her daughter, like she herself once, is facing the complex sexual side of marriage. The brilliant promise of the paperboy played by Elijah Ross will come to naught in the absurd waste of the war in France. Even Emily's little brother will die of a burst appendix on a camping trip. Life is as uncertain in Grovers Corners as it is anywhere.
But we're not wrong to remember first the comforting images of this American life, the idyllic courtship of Emily and her George, played by Mark A. Neels less convincingly as an adolescent and star athlete than I would have liked, and the affectionate ease in their parents' marriages, with Tom Moore as Dr. Gibbs and John Robertson as Editor Webb.
Uniting us in the audience with those on the stage is David Gibbs' Stage Manager, assured and reassuring. As the Stage Manager, Gibbs is a natural.
On the usual bare stage, set designer Tim Grumich has hung flats and platforms against a curtain upstage for a little more visual interest. Tracey Newcomb made enriching costume choices. Bob Veatch's lights isolate some scenes. Stage manager Lori Potts precisely cues the realistic touches of Brian Borgstede's sound design. Director Lori Renna has pulled it all together for another deeply satisfying visit to Our Town.
The Hawthorne Players production continues at Florissant Civic Center Theatre through Sunday afternoon. Tickets are available online or through the box office at 314-921-5678.