Top Hat tackles sizable challenge of ‘Ragtime’

By Milan Paurich

Brian Palumbo’s Top Hat Productions opens its 2009-10 season this weekend with its eagerly awaited staging of the smash 1998 Broadway musical “Ragtime.” Following on the heels of Top Hat’s critically acclaimed, award- winning “Aida” and “Smokey Joe’s Cafe,” “Ragtime” could be their biggest — and riskiest — production to date.

In a recent interview, Palumbo discussed the myriad challenges of mounting such a large-scaled endeavor.

Q. Last season’s “Aida” was a terrifically ambitious show for your theater company. “Ragtime” is an even more ambitious undertaking. What has it been like to shepherd such an enormous musical on Top Hat’s relatively diminutive stage — and with such a large cast of players to boot?

A. It’s been a real challenge directing a show of this size. We’re using just under 40 vocalists, and 90 percent of the costumes are being made — by a team of eight supremely dedicated ladies — completely from scratch. And since “Ragtime” is such a logistically complicated show, there are also a huge number of people working behind the scenes to help make the production a success.

Q. The 2003 London production of “Ragtime” replaced the original Broadway staging with all of its attendant bells and whistles for a stripped-down, almost concert-like version similar to the successful B’way revival of “Chicago.” Have you opted to go that route and give the show a more intimate, chamber musical feel?

A. With the size of our stage being what it is, there are always certain limitations. Yet the Stephan Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens score and Terrence McNally’s book are so beautifully written that it’s possible to perform the show in a variety of ways. For Top Hat’s production of “Ragtime,” we’ve allowed the performers to bring their own individual magic to the story. However, it wouldn’t be a Top Hat show without some exciting surprises in store. And we certainly have a few tricks up our sleeve (laughs).

Q. What initially attracted you to “Ragtime”? Was it the score, the book or the sheer difficulty of staging a show on such an epic scale?

A. I have to say that the score is what initially sparked my interest. I’ve always been influenced by music, and when I first heard the opening number, I was already hooked. It’s incredible how the melodies and the lyrics draw you into the show almost immediately.

Q. You usually do double — even triple and quadruple — duties on every Top Hat show. What roles will you be playing this time?

A. Besides directing, I’m playing the role of Tateh, a poor immigrant who’s just starting a new life in America with his young daughter (played by Chloe Housteau). I also had a hand in some of the costuming, and basically fill in whenever something needs to be done. But that’s what community theater is all about. Everyone has to pull their weight, and then some. You really need to have a passion for the entire process to stick with it.

Q. For those of our readers unfamiliar with “Ragtime” the musical or any of its previous incarnations (E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel or its 1981 nonmusical Milos Forman film adaptation), can you give us a thumbnail synopsis of the plot?

A. “Ragtime” is a perfect photo book of life in turn-of-the-century America. Intertwined are the stories of three extraordinary families as they confront history’s timeless contradictions of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair. Nikita Jones and Joshua Green play Sarah and Coalhouse Walker, a black couple at the center of the story. Racism forces the couple to go down a road of social protest as their lives quickly spiral into despair. It’s amazing how just one decision can change a life forever. Mother, played by Top Hat newcomer Jennifer Kuczek, is temporarily the head of the household, while her husband (Bill Marr) is away. She invites Sarah and her baby to move in with her family: young son (Donny Wolford), grandfather (Denny Villa) and younger brother (Mark Samual). When Father finally returns home, he realizes that the world he left behind will never be the same. Throughout the play, we get a true picture of immigrant life during that period through the character of Tateh, and we also meet radical anarchist Emma Goldman (Anna Marshall), Harry Houdini (Anthony Villa) Evelyn Nesbit (Marlene Figley) and many more. It’s amazing to me how the author (McNally) is able to present such a multi-tiered story line in a two-hour-plus time frame and still make it entertaining and accessible for the audience.

Q. “Ragtime” tackles some pretty deep-dish themes — including racism and the whole immigrant experience — which are as relevant today as they were at the time of the musical’s early-20th-century setting. How do you prevent it from coming across like an overly earnest civics lesson? And what do you hope audiences will take away from the show besides some powerhouse vocal performances?

A. Right from the opening scene you start relating to the characters. They’re our friends and neighbors, our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles. They truly are the people of everyday America. We’re really hoping that the audience takes from the show a better understanding of events that occurred in our nation’s past and even learn something from it. If they leave the theater thinking of ways to make a positive change in today’s world, that would be fantastic. And it’s what our mission statement at Top Hat is all about.

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