By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Ragtime was one of the most popular shows ever staged by Top Hat Productions, and so it was an obvious choice to be reprised this year.
Only its top-grossing, most-asked-for musicals from past seasons are on Top Hat’s 2013-14 lineup, which the theater company has dubbed its “Flashback” season. The year started with “Blood Brothers” and “57th Season” and will finish with “The Earth Trembled” in April.
“Ragtime” will be a true flashback. Director Brian Palumbo would only do the show — which is based on E.L. Doctorow’s classic novel — if the quartet of actors in lead roles from the original production five years ago would return.
Needless to say, that’s what happened.
Reprising their roles are Joshua William Green as the pianist Coalhouse Walker; Nikita R. Jones as the washwoman Sarah; Anna Marshall as Emma Goldman; and Mark Samuel.
“These characters are very real people, and that’s harder than making up a character,” said Palumbo in explaining his insistence on retaining the actors. “Plus, these roles are written very specifically, and so they are very hard to sing.”
The cast also includes Jennifer Lumley Kuczek and David El’ Hatton as wealthy white suburbanites; Palumbo and Sophie Heschmeyer as a father and daughter who are Jewish immigrants from Latvia living in poverty; Cheney Morgan, Matthew Schomer, Michael Appugliese, Aaron Franek, Steve Halas, Kennedy Jenkins, Becca Kopchak, Joe Marshall, Jennifer Milligan, Richard “Chipper” Moore, Jimmy Rosan, Denny Villa, Toni Zetts and more than 30 ensemble members.
In fact, the upcoming production has a gigantic cast of 55, making it considerably larger than the original, which had 40.
“Ragtime” begins in 1906 New York City, and focuses on three groups of people whose lives are dramatically different: upper-crust suburbanites, African-Americans and immigrants.
“It’s about how they relate to each other,” said Palumbo. “There are several storylines, and they all mix into it. It’s a ‘six degrees of separation’ type of musical, and all the stories run very deep and connect.”
Music director Anthony Ruggiero will play piano, accompanied by an orchestra track. “Ragtime,” said Palumbo, is very much in the classic musical theater style.
“It’s an amazing show — a headache to put together, but it’s wonderful, and the talent is great,” he said.
“It’s one of my favorites, and the message behind it sells it for me. It’s about class issues, racism, equal rights. It’s set in 1906 but we’re still fighting these kinds of issues today, including equal rights for women, gay marriage and racism.”
After “Ragtime” closes, Top Hat will gear up for its annual production of “The Earth Trembled.”
The passion play has become a staple of the Easter season in the Mahoning Valley.
First staged in 1992, it is the production that started Top Hat and remains the show to which it’s most closely identified.
However, this year will be the last time Top Hat presents it — at least for the foreseeable future.
The reason? After 20-plus years, Palumbo and Co. are ready for a break.
“It’s a major undertaking, and it’s untouchable in that some of the cast would be hard to replace,” said Palumbo. “Everyone involved with it has said, ‘Let’s go out while we’re on top.’”
Palumbo plays the lead role of Jesus, which, he said, is physically demanding. “I get hurt every year doing it. You get whipped, spit on, thrown to the ground. It’s been like my life’s work, but it’s time to stop.”
The powerful production routinely draws full houses. Admission, as always, will be free this year although donations will be accepted.
“The Earth Trembled” will be staged April 11-19.