Ragtime The Musical - AIMS - Adjudicator's Critique 2014

Tuesday 18th March 2014 at 12:00 PM

The following is the public section of the show critique for our production of Ragtime The Musical, by AIMS Adjudicator, Damien Murray:

There is something special about the local Musical Society's annual production in most rural towns throughout Ireland that causes a bit of a buzz in the town. Castlerea is no exception, for when I arrived at the venue there was a great sense of expectation as the audience took its seats for this epic show about the birth of modern America - warts and all.

The foyer was filled with iconic imagery of America, including flags, bunting and even the image of the statue of liberty, and I also liked the fact that this company treasured its previous AIMS awards enough to publicly display them.

Directed by Peter Kennedy, who also doubled as Choreographer, this was not only a big show but also an equally epic production of it. Lying somewhere between Fiddler On The Roof and Showboat in some respects, the gritty and disturbing subject matter was never going to be a "Barrel of laughs", but rather a theatrical reflection of the harsh realities of the time. The staging of this show is a difficult enough challenge for any company, but to stage it from scratch in a sports hall of a multi-purpose community hub in an industrial estate with neither stage nor other theatrical facilities was nothing short of a monumental task.

The set design team's work could only be realised after the building of a full, workable stage and lighting rig was in place. Comprising two large double-level set pieces at either side of the stage, this was an impressive design, which proved to be functional, symbolic and visually pleasing, with its black/white colour-coding capturing the racial significance within the story. The piece on stage left was a black open-framed staircase structure (where the Afro/Americans in the story would often be found), while the one on stage right was a white open-framed revolving house structure (the home of the wealthy white American family), but due to height restrictions the lower level of this one was merely symbolic.

The black structure also doubled as a ship and good use was made of two high mobile rostra, which, in keeping with other parts of set, were also open-framed structures. The set also included full stage size projections onto the flat cyc screen above a stage-wide back platform, with continuous and relevant imagery to help tell the story or to set the scene. Thankfully, this was thoughtfully and very successfully used and - as the synopsis of the story is complicated for anyone new to the show was a good tool for simplifying the story. Indeed, it is a credit to all involved here for bringing this story from page to stage so simply for its audience to understand.

All those playing members of the Afro/American community in this production wore black wigs and were "Blackened up" for the performance. While this is potentially controversial, the decision on whether or not to do this is totally at the discretion of the company and it must be noted that it does not affect the adjudication of the show.

There was good use of children throughout, and special mention must go to Cian Haynes as Little Boy and Nancy Henry as Little Girl for their important performances, while it was excellent to see a real Model T Ford car on stage, providing both great attention to detail and a high degree of authenticity.

Although not totally sung through, this show was "As good as" for the busy 15-piece orchestra and their hard-working Musical Director, Chorus Master and Conductor, Shane Farrell, who, thankfully, chose only to conduct in order to give this busy choral show all the attention it deserved; a move that worked well as the choral diction was always close to perfect.

Following the Little Boy setting the scene with dialogue over the appropriately piano-based Overture, the rousing title song was accompanied by some busy stage activity with great use of space on all levels for groupings to provide a colourful opening with the amazing and unexpected arrival of Kevin Heaney's Harry Houdini from the back of the auditorium, suspended upside down from a high wire above the audience.

A lot of Kennedy's choreography was about groupings, positioning, movement and integration rather than conventional dance routines, and he certainly made use of all of the different height levels to maximise variation. However, the dancers did get a chance to shine during the lively and colourful production piece, Crime Of The Century, and I particularly liked the ensemble dancing in Henry Ford with its use of hands to form the letter "T", while the fast-paced playing by the orchestra combined with good ensemble movement to make The Gettin' Ready Rag a success.

Other musical highlights included: the harmonies during Journey On; the pounding musical suspense created as the car was being damaged; the amazingly effective off-stage choral work during both Justice and Epilogue; and the duet, Wheels Of A Dream, which really did cause the hairs on the back of my neck to rise.

Generally, Liam Feeney's sound was good, but numerous late mic cues were annoying, as were a few late lighting cues. However, Kennedy and Feeney's warm lighting plot enhanced some great pictures in A Shtetl Iz Amereke, while the freeze moments and slow motion movement during The Night That Goldman Spoke was well-lit with impressive red lighting to express Tateh's rage. While death scenes can sometimes be difficult to stage, Sarah's burial through the trap door in the Act 1 finale (Till We Reach That Day) was both effective and harrowing.

Boasting colourful and perfect period costumes, there was great attention to detail in dress, hair & make-up and props throughout, while the arrival of the Jewish community at Ellis Island provided very authentic costuming. There were no problems with entrances and exits and the hard-working ensemble/chorus gave great support to the generally well-cast Principals, although a few need to try to sustain their accents and diction, especially when expressing anger or arguing on stage.

With his soulful vocals and good acting, Shane Kelly gave a gentle and patient portrayal of the Afro/American immigrant and ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker, who eventually seeks revenge and justice, against Julie Connolly's good performance as his girl, Sarah.

Displaying great stage presence, Jaqueline Kenny was outstanding with her gentle, warm and thoughtful performance of Mother, while her well controlled vocals in songs like Goodbye, My Love and the duet with Tateh, Nothing Like The City, easily made them highlights. As the Eastern European immigrant and artist, Tateh, Niall Heaney proved to be a great actor with that rare ability to act through his expressive vocal skills; singing both gently (Our Children) and in anger (A Shtetl Iz Amereke and Success) yet retaining his clear vocals and perfect diction.

Finally, Sarah's Friend was the voice of reason and hope here and her character was so well performed by Caroline Madigan that she proved that there is no such a thing as a small role.

Damien Murray
February, 2014