Powerful ‘Ragtime’ at Footlite Musicals

By John Lyle Belden

Since it launched in 1996, Terrance McNally’s musical “Ragtime” — based on the E.L. Doctorow novel — has become an American “Les Mis,” a great sweeping epic of national identity and tragic power. And now it graces the stage of Footlite Musicals.

Set in the first decade of the 20th century, an upper-middle class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. find themselves at the crossroads of a number of intersecting stories, blending historical figures and events with characters who were a reflection of the era in various ways — good and bad. 

One can’t dispute the star power of such roles as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Allen Sledge), who faces one racist indignity too many; his tragic girlfriend Sarah (Angela Manlove); extraordinarily kind Mother (Heather Hansen), discovering liberation despite society’s constraints; her headstrong Younger Brother (Jared Gaddis), whose search for meaning takes him to radical extremes; and immigrant Tateh (Daniel Draves), whose artistic soul keeps reaching for the American Dream until he finds it. 

Another impressive performance is by Edgar, the Little Boy, who acts as one of the play’s narrators as well as involvement in numerous scenes — a big task for a young actor, which Lincoln Everitt carries out well.

The “real” people in the show include Henry Ford (W. Michael Davidson), J.P. Morgan (Bryan Padgett), Harry Houdini (Josh Cox), and anarchist Emma Goldman (Lauren Laski) — as well as two whom history would remember in completely opposite ways. Evelyn Nesbitt (Hadas Yasmin) was the Kim Kardashian of her time, a style icon with more notoriety than talent, only known now by her inclusion in Doctorow’s book; while civil rights icon Booker T. Washington (Jerry Davis) is widely celebrated to this day.

Directed by Paula Phelan, this production has solid performances throughout, including from characters who don’t come off quite as heroic in the narrative — such as Father (Mitchell Hammersley) who means well, but finds himself distanced from his family (even when he’s with them) and lost in the changing times; and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin (Josh Cornell), the biggest villain of the show.

A last-minute addition to the cast, Truman Peyton charms as little Coalhouse Walker III in the finale.

The split-level set is used to good effect, with excellent light effects and projections to punctuate scenes, and a nice representation of a Model T to drive across the stage. Zak Techiniak directs the live orchestra.

Part of the impact of this very powerful musical story is in the unflinching look at the treatment of minorities of the era, including the use of vicious language, in context. It is disturbing, as it is meant to be — a visceral reminder of how far we have come in a century, yet how close we are to falling back.

Performances run through Oct. 13 at 1847 N. Alabama St.,near downtown Indy. Call 317-926-6630 or visit footlite.org.

Catalyst’s ‘Class’ in session

By John Lyle Belden

Nan Macy is a master of portraying strong mature women, and shows this to brilliant effect in the current production of Terrance McNally’s “Master Class,” presented by Catalyst Repertory in association with the Indianapolis Opera Company and The Switch Theatre.

Macy portrays legendary opera soprano Maria Callas, who, late in her career, is giving the titular class for young vocal students. Callas’s career was notable not only for her exceptional voice, but also tabloid-style scandals including rivalries with other singers and her affair with shipping magnate Aristotle Onasis. Here we see this brash, blunt diva with a well-established chip on her shoulder from having been looked down upon for her Greek heritage and her weight (she underwent drastic weight loss at the peak of her career, a boon to her casting but possibly hurting her voice). She is far too proud to acknowledge her declining vocal ability, living the adage of “those who can’t do, teach.” Regardless, she gives her charges a lot to learn about presentation and passion.  

With such serious subject matter, and her lapses into troubled memory, it’s easy to forget until you see this how incredibly funny this show is. For instance, Macy’s timing is perfect in saying “let me stop you there,” the moment a poor student opens her mouth.

As for her “victims,” we get some nice vocals from Abigail Johnson, Shederick Whipple, and Rachelle Woolston. And we see, as they do with Callas, that there is more to great opera than just knowing the words. Sean Manterfield is Manny, the piano accompanist. Thomas Smith is a stagehand badgered by Callas, but also turns the tables portraying Onasis in her recollections. Director Tony Johnson also has other cast members drift in and out of her memory as figures from her past.

This is a “class” you won’t want to skip, as hilarity and tragic depth occupy the stage in equal measure, wielded by a master, portraying a master. Brava!

“Master Class” performances are Friday through Sunday at 10029 E. 126th St., Fishers. Get tickets at theswitch.yapsody.com.

Take a spin with Buck Creek Players

By John Lyle Belden

Times change in every era. Recent years have washed away most of the video stores and game arcades of the 1980s, and that decade, in turn, tore down some old diversions to make room for the new. That’s where we find “The Rink,” the musical running through Feb. 11 at Buck Creek Players.

On a run-down seaside boardwalk, Antonelli’s Roller Rink – once bustling but now in decay, its pipe organ long silent – is closed and due for demolition. The building contains the residence of owner (and “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”) Anna Antonelli. But as she moves the last of her possessions out, in comes her daughter, Angel, who had left home over a decade before in order to “find herself.” The reunion becomes tense as Angel discovers not only is her childhood home being destroyed, but also her mother forged her signature to sell it. Is this relationship, like the building, now damaged beyond repair?

Typically, I’d mention the creators of the musical up front; but though they personally loved it, it is not the best work by Broadway legends John Kander and Fred Ebb. And fortunately, book-writer Terrance McNally would go on to write a number of legendary Tony-winning musicals and plays. But in this, overall, the script is weak — the songs ranging from mildly catchy to cringe-worthy.

Fortunately, BCP and director D. Scott Robinson elevate the material though brilliant casting. Real-life mother and daughter Georgeanna Tiepen (Anna) and Miranda Nehrig (Angel) also happen to be wildly talented actors and singers. Their natural bond shows through, bringing out the heart of the show. A chorus of men play the crew impatiently waiting to tear the place down, as well as, in flashback, the men in the women’s lives. This includes great performances by Jake McDuffy as Dino, Angel’s father, and Michael R. Mills as Dino’s father, the original owner of the rink.

Kudos to set designer Aaron B. Bailey for making the stage an authentic-looking piece of the skating rink’s floor – it even gets some use in a fun interlude when the wrecking crew find some skates.

This show does have its merits, and especially if you empathize with the plight of mothers and prodigal daughters, or have your own cherished boardwalk or rollerskating memories, you’ll find yourself liking your time at “The Rink.”

Also, to complete the atmosphere, BCP has started selling popcorn before the show, which you can partake of in the theatre.

Playhouse is at 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.