Explore the World of “Ragtime the Musical” at Sand Lake Center for the Arts  

It’s always interesting to see a small community theater troupe take on a monumental project. One cannot help but query, ‘Have they bitten off more than they can chew?’ This is usually the case with big, splashy, complex musicals. The ideal example is Terrance McNally’s Ragtime, the Musical. The production is traditionally performed with a cast of up to 45 persons. Each one needs to have a strong singing voice in order to carry off a successful production.

The play focuses on America in the early 20th century and the changes that are, or are not, happening in the country, as well as, how the lives of three divergent groups of people intertwine. The African Americans, represented by Harlem musician Colehouse Walker Jr. and his girlfriend Sarah; a group of upper-middle-class white suburbanites living “in the house on the hill” in New Rochelle, NY: Mother, Father and their family, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather and The Little Boy, Edgar; and finally, the immigrants coming to the new word to build a better life: Tateh, a Latvian Jewish artist and his daughter. Interspersed are some historical figures: Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, JP Morgan and Booker T. Washington.

All of that seems daunting. Add a complex score, the perceived need for a large, lush orchestra and you almost immediately wonder not only how a small group with a small stage to work on would present this effectively, but also why would they even attempt it. That can be answered in three words: Circle Theatre Players—the resident group at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts in Averill Park. 

Director Eric Shovah reduces the cast to about 25, performers double and triple roles, everyone participates in the chorus and everyone helps move set pieces. The orchestra, reduced to two pianos on rotating platforms is constantly moved around the stage. Shovah’s manipulation of the cast and the orchestra is a worthy performance.  His direction of this ensemble is admirable, making full use of the theatre’s aisles, ramps, stair access to the stage; wherever he is able, he places the cast affording a not normally found intimacy with this show. The audience becomes a part of the production as the production swirls around them.

Musical director Heather Ferlo has done a fine job working to get the most from this cast. Some numbers work better than others, a few are disappointing.  Heather D’Arcy is the mother and the strongest member of the cast. Her voice resonates throughout the theatre. Her tender Goodbye, My Love and Back to Before are beautiful. Jennifer Ansong is Sarah, the woman who has delivered an illegitimate baby and is given refuge in Mother’s home. Ansong’s portrayal is perhaps the most evolved throughout the play. We see her emerge from her shell of depression and become a strong forceful woman. Her voice shines in Your Daddy’s Son and fills with emotion in President

Beckie Bourgault’s fierce Emma Goldman is a delight; her The Night the Goldman Spoke at Union Square is a showstopper. It becomes quite obvious that the women emerge as the play’s heroes and leaders. Nick Martiniano as Younger Brother, Jahmere Holland as Colehouse Adam M. Coons’ Father, and Ken Kasch as Tateh all give admirable performances. In the first act’s Wheels of a Dream, the duet between Colehouse and Sarah, perhaps the best-known number in the show, fell flat. The pair redeemed themselves later in the second act with a very sweet and loving Sarah Brown Eyes.

Outstanding in this production are the full-cast musical numbers: the opening Ragtime, Till We Reach That Day and the Epilogue are stunning. It’s the small details and choices that are made where the show stumbles—odd prop choices, strange costume selections—that run a time span that is both inconsistent not only with the period of the play but also with one another. The show runs long, so be prepared to settle in. In the end, you will be impressed by what this hard-working group has accomplished with the confines they have to overcome.  Ragtime is a beautiful play with a powerful message to impart. The love time, and devotion that the cast and crew have put into this production flows out into the incredibly appreciative audience. 

Ragtime The Musical runs through October 22 at Sand Lake Center for the Arts,  2880 NY-43, Averill Park. For ticket information, www.slca-ctp.org or call 518-674-2007.

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