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PEMCo’s latest production is truly impressive

Analise Lipari | Friday, February 2, 2007

With “Ragtime,” the Pasquerilla East Musical Company takes a sweeping step into deeper and far more serious territory than it has ventured towards before. Tackling such issues as poverty, racism, motherhood, love and the spectacle of the “American dream,” PEMCo’s “Ragtime” is a rousing success.

By far the most ambitious production that PEMCo has undertaken in recent memory, the strength of “Ragtime” is a testament to the power of a magnificent score and an earnest, energetic cast. Quelling doubts regarding how well an amateur cast of students could tackle “Ragtime,” a musical rife with deep social, political and emotional strife, the production is impressively well done.

The complex and interwoven plot is set up very well with the play’s opening number, “Ragtime,” which juxtaposes against one another three central, conflicting groups: the upper-class, white community of La Rochelle, New York, the mass groups of immigrants from Eastern and Western Europe and the residents of New York’s Harlem, and each group gives rise to a central plotline. In Harlem, ragtime-playing pianist Coalhouse Walker (Kyle Carter) intoxicates dancers with his rebellious new type of music. In New Rochelle, a typical American family headed by Mother and Father (Jacqui Acuña and Tim Politano) lives a seemingly content life of economic success. Lastly, in the Lower East Side neighborhoods of New York, Latvian immigrant Tateh (Tim Masterton, also co-producer) strives, like millions of others, to capture his piece of the great American pie.

If, for any reason, a potential audience member were contemplating not seeing “Ragtime,” Kyle Carter’s performance as Coalhouse Walker should and will overwhelmingly persuade them to change their mind as soon as possible. Carter is remarkable in a role most doubted could be even adequately filled; he is magnetic, sweet, affable, powerful and altogether extraordinary.

The depths of his surprisingly impressive voice and his mastery of Coalhouse’s emotional range are striking, and, to his credit, his strengths as a performer firmly anchor the show.

Acuña, as well, demonstrates her notable skill as a musical theater actress, playing the role of the unknowingly forward-thinking Mother with grace and subtlety, as well as her possessing a simply beautiful voice.

Other cast members of particular note include Will McAuliffe as Younger Brother, a man seemingly lost in the early twentieth century’s tumultuous change who finds an unexpected calling; Allison Giovinazzo as Evelyn Nesbitt, a scandal-ridden media darling whose moral ambiguities capture the attention of a nation; Andrew Wright as Booker T. Washington, a figure whose educated, peace-conscious attitude towards race relations comes in jarring conflict with episodes of racially motivated violence.

The play asks several difficult questions of its audience about the truthfulness of possibility and social mobility in America – specifically the America of a century ago, with the existence of Jim Crow laws and dirty tenements rampant, but these questions are, no doubt, still very meaningful for audiences today. With symbols of great promise, like Coalhouse’s beloved Ford Model T, come also failure, unhappiness and death. The cast does a fine job of articulating the nuances of these issues, well aided by the strength of the source material.