Living up to name, Palumbo, Top Hat excel with ‘Ragtime’

By Milan Paurich

Brian Palumbo and Top Hat Productions have done it again. After scaling the heights of last season’s “Aida” triumph, Top Hat has come back stronger than ever with its sublime current production of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1998 musical “Ragtime.” The 2009-10 community theater season officially begins here, YACTA voters.

I’m not sure how Palumbo does it. Is he some kind of musical theater savant? Does he have precognitive abilities that help him pick the best available talent for every show? Perhaps he’s divinely assisted by The Man Upstairs (Top Hat is, after all, a Christian Theater Company). Whatever the explanation, Palumbo and Company just keep getting better and better. “Ragtime” is further proof — if any was needed — that Top Hat is producing the finest musical theater in the Mahoning Valley.

“Ragtime” might not even be a particularly great musical (it lost the Tony Award to Disney’s “The Lion King” in June ’98). Flaherty and Ahrens’ score is really no better than second-tier (Stephen) Sondheim, and Terrence McNally’s book —adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s epochal 1975 novel — can be absurdly exposition-heavy at times. (The fact that there are so many characters, and competing storylines, to keep track of doesn’t help matters.) Yet I can’t imagine a better production of an intrinsically flawed show than the one Palumbo has assembled.

Top Hat’s diminutive stage somehow manages to work to the play’s advantage.

The bustling opening number, which introduces three socio- ethnic/economic groups of wildly diverse archetypes (a WASP-y patrician family; Eastern European immigrants newly arrived in Ellis Island; and blacks led by ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker), and real-life historical personages (including escape artist Harry Houdini and showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt) might seem hopelessly overcrowded if it didn’t so perfectly mirror the show’s America-as-melting-pot metaphor.

Another laudable achievement of director Palumbo is his ability to keep this teeming mosh pit of characters consistently explicable for the audience. Even if you’ve never read Doctorow’s book or seen the (nonmusical) 1981 Milos Forman film adaptation, it’s perfectly clear at all times who’s who and how everyone is interconnected. Again, Palumbo makes Top Hat’s relatively small venue work for him. Maybe some of the nuances would have been lost, or simply misplaced, on a larger stage.

Not that Palumbo skimps on the show’s more spectacular elements. While Top Hat can’t compete with the original Broadway production’s $11-million budget, it still manages a few tricks — including a working Model T, Nesbitt’s dangerous- looking “girl-on-a-swing” routine and simulated fireworks — that astound with their clockwork precision, derring-do and chutzpah.

And Palumbo’s “Ragtime” cast is truly inspired. Jennifer Kuczek (Mother), Bill Marr (Father), Mark Samuel (Younger Brother), Denny Villa (Grandfather) and Donny Wolford (Little Boy) are the very personification of a well-heeled New Rochelle family in the early 20th century. Palumbo and 8-year-old Chloe Noel Housteau beautifully embody the immigrant experience as Latvian migr Tateh and his cherished “Little Girl.” Anna Marshall strikes palpable sparks as firebrand radical Emma Goldman; Marlene Figley makes a deliciously vampish Nesbitt; Anthony Villa impresses as contortionist supreme Houdini; and indispensable ensemble members Cheney Morgan (racist pig Willie Conklin as well as a slew of other roles), Dave Wolford (moneybags J.P. Morgan and Admiral Peary, among others), Wayne Morlock (Henry Ford, etc.) and Top Hat good-luck charm Angel Febres prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are no small parts, only small actors.

But what ultimately makes this “Ragtime” leap into the stratosphere — and why people will be talking about this production for decades to come — are the remarkable performances of Youngstown State University students Joshua W. Green and Nikita R. Jones as pianist/ accidental urban terrorist Walker and lady love Sarah.

Marquee Award winner Jones has been kicking around the community theater scene for years, turning in one electrifying portrayal after another, but she truly outdoes herself here. Besides being a world-class vocalist (“Your Daddy’s Son,” the score’s standout song, has never sounded lovelier), Jones proves once again that she’s also a wonderfully skilled actress.

Twenty-year-old Green delivers the type of star-making turn that deserves to become the stuff of local legend. The level of skill, discipline and passion he brings to the play’s most challenging role is breathtaking. Plus, he sings like a dream.

Jeff Chan performs his usual Top Hat miracles with sound and lighting, and the costume and set design — both credited to jack-of-all-trades Palumbo — are aces. Although no choreographer is credited in the playbill, whoever was responsible for the modified dance numbers deserves mad props as well.

Not everything is perfect. Father’s borderline risible ZZ Top beard after returning from a yearlong stint in the North Pole with Admiral Peary could use an overhaul. Also, Top Hat’s folding chairs remain every derriere’s worst nightmare — especially when you’re sitting on them for nearly three hours.

Bring along a pillow or seat cushion, but don’t dare miss this show.

X“Ragtime” runs through Oct. 18 at the Fairview Arts and Outreach Center. For tickets or additional information, call (330) 755-6412.

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