A South Jersey High school drives its “Wheels of a Dream” bravely through a wonderful production. Surrounded by a barrage of local and regional media attention Cherry Hill East High School decides to “Make Them Hear You”.
The sweeping musical based on the novel ‘Ragtime’ by E.L. Doctorow came alive with a strong young cast that did justice to the spectacular score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Easily one of most under-rated musicals to come out of Broadway in the last 20 years, Ragtime: The Musical—with book by Terrence McNally, follows the lives of three families and their communities through the tumultuous and promise filled early 20th century. For each member of the African American, upper-class suburbanite, and Eastern European immigrant groups, the fight for understanding brought unique perspectives to this vibrant and challenging time in American history.
Cherry Hill East’s decision to follow the shows script as outlined by MTI (Music Theater International) brought a barrage of confrontation due to the racial language and profile of this piece. But copyright laws prohibited modifying the script, leaving the district with the option to perform the musical as written or not at all.
Superintendent Joseph Meloche, who made the decision to allow the musical to go on as written with racial slurs, said the required class discussions about racism and stereotypes were an important first step for the district of 11,350 students “History and English classes for thousands of students at Cherry Hill East took a detour to engage in a hefty subject: race and the N-word.” The South Jersey district has developed a special curriculum to discuss those sensitive themes before the production of Ragtime-School Edition hit the school’s stage for a nine-day run.
The issue sparked such far- reaching interest to the extent that Broadway’s Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of the original production, came down to his experience and support at Cherry Hill High School East. Prior to the opening he tried to help students address the thorny use of the N-word and other racially charged language in the school’s upcoming production. The student actors rose to the challenge by making a public statement before each performance assuring their stand on this delicate matter.
Ragtime is a show that reaches hearts to the core. No story more dramatic and touching than the relationship of the musical’s central couple, Sarah played by Ashley Cooper and Coalhouse Walker Jr played by Cedric Middleton. With a highly charged emotion- fueled score it reveals the carelessness of young love in songs “Sarah Brown Eyes” the heartbreak of the losses that weighs heavy on the two young lovers. The powerful desperation of “Your Daddy’s Son” and the smooth sorrow of “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” equally express emotional power. Both Cooper and Middleton are expressively caught up in their respective roles and are outstanding in their roles which are played to near perfection. The role of Father was played nicely by Ezra Nugiel and Mother beautifully played and sung by Katherine Trauger whose soars in “Back To Before”. From Emma Goldman played by Kathryn Quay to Evelyn Nesbit played by Jacki Orlando, each actor delivers a performance to be proud of and thoroughly grabs the audience at every scene. For a musical already driven so lyrically by the stories of individuals, these actors made me taste the struggles, the disappointment, and the hope that they each lived.
Often bringing comic relief to the production was the inextinguishable optimism and fatherly devotion of Tateh played by Jake Ropka, faced with years of hardship after his decision to move his life and daughter to a new life in America. Ropka’s Tateh was rooted in kindness, determination. You could see his character’s energy touching every member of the company.
The powerhouse behind any production typically goes to the director(s) and East’s Theater director Tom Weaver and co-director and choreographer Sandi Makofsky can take a well deserved bow! The two manage to wrangle over 100 student/actors and turn this energy into a flowing, well acted, well synchronized creation. Weaver is also is responsible for the impressive sets and lighting. Scenes were visually stunning and the addition of projections by Peter Gambino, particularly the moving train scene is quite effective. Noel Davis’s beautiful period costumes add to the authentic feel of the 1920’s.
RAGTIME- School Edition plays at the Cherry Hill East High School, Kresson Rd. Cherry Hill on selected dates through 3/19. For tickets and more information visit: www.chetheatre.com
Production Photo: Cherry Hill East Theatre
Photo: Brian Stokes Mitchel and Cedrick Middleton (Coalhouse)
Photo Credit: Tricia Burroughs