Performing arts programs that have largely gone their own way over the decades at a university join forces to stage a musical theater production. For their inaugural effort, they choose one of the largest shows of the past quarter-century: Ragtime.
The original production's titanic requirements bankrupted its producers, even though it won a fistful of Tony Awards and ran for two years on Broadway. In addition to 20-odd speaking roles, three robust choruses represented different socioeconomic communities in New York at the turn of the 20th century; they effectively doubled the cast size and had to be costumed and coiffed, in period.
But the undertaking is no more an example of hubris—or chutzpah—than undergraduate Nathaniel Hill's proposal that initiated this co-production by Duke's theater studies and music departments, its dance program and two student-led groups: Duke Chamber Players and Hoof 'n' Horn. After internships with major theatrical producers in New York, Hill proposed producing the show himself as a senior distinction project.
The favorable results opened last weekend at Duke's Reynolds Industries Theater. They underline the critical role a producer plays in providing the endless drive, the means and the solid creative infrastructure required for artists to realize their best work. Without all three in place, a work such as Ragtime isn't possible.
That sobering fact confronts us in the smaller size and scope of almost all of the region's independent productions. And that, in turn, underscores an even greater point: When programs that can produce large-scale artworks regularly don't, the works tend to vanish—along with the untaught skills required to stage them.
As Anthony Kelley's orchestra sets a brisk pace, director Jeff Storer uses Torry Bend's three-level set of walkways, gates and balconies to depict the social stratification of the early 1900s. It's no coincidence that E.L. Doctorow's unnamed upper-class family assumes a prominent position on the top floor alongside Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, while a clutch of immigrants and African-Americans stake out places on the stage beneath. Between them, two liminal figures occupy a middle landing: Harry Houdini, himself an immigrant, escapes from his chains into celebrity, as model Evelyn Nesbit parlays growing fame into a notably different career.
Barbara Dickinson's choreography animated the conflict and celebrations of the prologue and later songs, including a soulful "Sarah Brown Eyes" and a "Gettin' Ready Rag" that was exuberant, if skimpy in places on solo and tap work.
Lynn Ahrens' lyrics proved thoughtful, scathing and beseeching in different parts of Stephen Flaherty's joyous, aching and passionate score. We savored the delicacy of Alessandra DiMona's "What Kind of Woman," Cameron Lyon's jocular "Crime of the Century," Dominique Barnes' "Your Daddy's Son" and the ensemble work in "New Music." On "The Wheels of a Dream," the silken tones of Martavius Parrish (alternating with Jordan Rodriguez in various shows) compensated for an otherwise relative lack of stage presence. The first act closer, "Till We Reach That Day," was devastating as Kelley stitched a counterpoint of outrage among the multiple choruses.
Even given its stated social concerns, Terrence McNally's adaptation at times runs the same risk that the character Tateh, a filmmaker, does when he sentimentalizes, "What a lovely movie it all makes." In framing the plights of economic and racial oppression exclusively in exceptional characters who can plausibly transcend them, Ragtime spends a conspicuous amount of its time with people whose company we might prefer to those not creative, gifted or lucky enough to challenge their economic and racial bonds.
Do lives of quiet desperation not make for compelling musical theater? Check back: A different answer may emerge when Burning Coal premieres its new version of Jude the Obscure this week.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Casting calls."