Fiddlehead’s ‘Ragtime’ revisited: Upon further review

Coalhouse Walker (Damien Norfleet celebrates the purchase of a Model-T
in a scene from the Fiddlehead Theatre’s production of “Ragtime.”

DORCHESTER — Sometimes, a second look allows for a clearer, fuller picture.
The Fiddlehead Theatre’s opening-night performance of “Ragtime” at the Strand Theatre on Sept. 28 was marred by severe sound problems, something completely out of the control of the performers but something which obviously affected both the performers and the perceptions of their performances.
A week later, the solving of the sound problems, combined with a week of performances, had turned “Ragtime” into a smooth-running machine, say, like the Model T driven by Coalhouse Walker in the show.
Friday night’s performance (Oct. 5) was strong throughout, making it a shame the run was to end on Sunday, Oct. 7.
“Ragtime” is one of the best and most important musicals of the past quarter-century.
Composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and book writer Terrence McNally put their entire hearts and souls into the project based on E.L. Doctorow‘s masterpiece book, and the result was a sweeping, powerful look at an era in the early 20th Century that helped the United States define itself.
The lives of three distinct groups — a privileged white family in New Rochelle, N.Y. , a recently-arrived group of immigrants struggling to survive in New York City, and a group of African-Americans in Harlem — intersect in many ways against the backdrop of cultural icons such at Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and J.P Morgan.
The issues of that era — economic inequality, immigration, tolerance — remain significant to this day, and perhaps that’s why the American Civil Liberties Union — heretofore never known as a theatrical producer — decided to team up with the Fiddlehead Theatre for the current run of “Ragtime.”
The production has also had the support of Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino; the city owns the Strand Theatre.
Any production of “Ragtime” is going nowhere without a strong actor and voice in the pivotal role of Coalhouse Walker, the black man who is radicalized by bigotry and the deaf ears after his calls for justice. Damien Norfleet has the requisite power, passion and vocal powers for the role, along with a magnetic stage presence.

Tateh (Adam Shapiro) and Mother (Shonna Cirone) in a scene from the
Fiddlehead Theatre’s production of “Ragtime.”

Tia DeShazor as the ill-fated Sarah was on her game from the start Friday, and she and Norfleet had one of the shining moments of the night in their first-act rendition of “Wheels of a Dream.”
Right alongside that duo is Adam Shapiro as Tateh, the penniless Jewish immigrant with a young daughter who comes to this country in search of the American dream. Shapiro, a bear of a man, brings great warmth and humor to his role and he melds beautifully with Julia Deluzio as his daughter.
Michael S. Dunavant, shines as the idealistic Younger Brother, full of righteous indignation at the indignities heaped on Coalhouse and Sarah, who abandons his privileged life to join Coalhouse‘s cause.
As Father and Mother, Shonna Cirone and Greg Balla seem a bit younger than most actors and actresses in the roles — it shouldn’t matter, that’s why they call it acting — but it is a bit off-putting.
Cirone does well in her second-act showstopper “Back to Before” while some of Balla’s best moments best come with interactions with Alec Shiman, who is excellent as the Young Boy, in the baseball number “What a Game.”
Ron Cook ably delivers his one-liners as the grumpy and politically incorrect — even for the times — Grandfather.
June Baboian does a nice job reprising the role of the fiery revolutionary Emma Goldman, a role she played in New Repertory Theatre’s 2006 production.
McCaela Donovan is a sexy, coquettish tease as Evelyn Nesbit, who is at the center of the “crime of the century,” the shooting of architect Stanford White by millionaire Harry Thaw.
Choreographer Anne McAlexander has the huge cast moving seamlessly and effectively around the stage in the production numbers, including the opening scene based on the title song, the “Getting’ Ready Rag” later in the first act and “Atlantic City” in the second act.
Scenic designer Janie Howland has used the Statue of Liberty — which also happens to be part of the show’s logo — as a glorious backdrop to her set, which also includes a series of panels dedicated to the cultural icons portrayed in the show, such as Nesbit and Houdini.
Fiddlehead Theatre Director Meg Fofonoff ably directed this production, and gets huge credit for undertaking the project, complete with a cast of 40 actors, allowing the play to be presented in its full power and glory.
This “Ragtime” — featuring a 16-piece orchestra led by Matthew Stern that realizes the majesty and power of Flaherty’s music — deserves to be seen and appreciated.
An aside: If you’re driving to the Strand, the Uphams Corner area is a busy urban neighborhood. There is municipal parking on Ramsey Street. Take a right onto Dudley Street from Columbia Road, then your first right onto Ramsey Street.
The Fiddlehead Theatre production of “Ragtime,” through Oct. 7 at the Strand Theatre, 543 Columbia Road, Dorchester. Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally. Based on the book by E.L. Doctorow. Directed by Meg Fofonoff. http://www.fiddleheadtheatre.com.

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