Young Artists of America and the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestras of Strathmore joined forces to present a concert version of Ragtime last Sunday, April 15th. The performance, which took place in the acoustically rich Music Center at Strathmore, highlighted the skills of 285 young performers who displayed maturity beyond their years in tackling both the serious subject matter of the Ragtime story and the complex music of the Stephen Flaherty score.
Onstage with the performers was the Maryland Classic Youth Orchestra, led by Conductor Kristofer Sanz. Rather than placing the orchestra in the pit, the concert presentation of Ragtime allowed for this large orchestra to be front and center onstage where their playing became a part of the scenery and an enhancement to the aural beauty of the production.
Two guest choruses completed the large onstage presence. Seated unobtrusively in the onstage balcony choral seats, the members of the James Hubert Blake and Eleanor Roosevelt High School choruses rose as one choreographed unit, in voice and body, at a climax in the show’s Prologue.
For those unfamiliar with Ragtime, it tells the story of three very different families at the beginning of the twentieth century. One family is white, Protestant, and privileged, a second family is African American and living in Harlem, and the third is comprised of a poor Jewish immigrant father and daughter coming to America from Latvia in search of a better life.
Ragtime highlights many difficult truths about early twentieth century America. As the story unfolds, we see that the American Dream meant very different things to people of these backgrounds and that race, religion and prejudice often (but not always) dictated one’s possibilities in America.
This was sensitive subject matter to tackle with a group of students yet to graduate high school, and Producing Artistic Director Rolando Sanz clearly approached the material with an understanding of the history it depicts and a belief that theater can be a safe place for young people to discuss difficult issues. At the outset of the performance, Sanz explained that much time was dedicated to discussing with the students the thornier aspects of the show’s plot. It is a testament to the entire group that they were able to embrace this subject matter with maturity and understanding.
Leading the cast was a group of talented young performers, two of whom (Amanda Primosch and Sam Nasar) received scholarships at the end of the evening. Primosch displayed a fine operatic voice that was easily able to handle the vocally-demanding role of Mother on formidable solos numbers such as “Back to Before.”
Emily Reed was equally impressive as Sarah, the African-American woman who bears Colehouse Walker’s son and inadvertently changes Mother’s life forever. Reed filled the stage with her undeniable presence on the solo tune “Daddy’s son” with a voice reminiscent of Audra McDonald (who originated the role on Broadway).
Ian Coursey played Tateh, the Jewish immigrant whose drive and determination make you root for him to overcome the numerous stumbling blocks that a poor immigrant faces in America. Coursey imbued the role with great comic timing and endearing stage presence.
Olivia Luzquinos performed the role of real-life Anarchist Emma Goldman with a fiery conviction. I spoke to Luzquinos backstage and she emphasized the impact this role has had on her, listing off facts about Goldman’s life and adding “it’s both a challenge and a privilege to attack this role.”
Guest Mentor DeCarlo Raspberry shined in the role of Colehouse Walker, the black musician who dreams of starting a family with Sarah in the iconic song “On the Wheels of a Dream,” only to find that dreams don’t always come true.
The entire production stands as a testament to what young people can accomplish when adults believe in them and give them a forum for creative expression. Ragtime continues Young Artists of America’s tradition as a leader in providing theatrical education to young performers in the Washington, DC area.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
Ragtime in Concert played one day only on Sunday, April 15th, 2018, at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For more information on future Young Artists of America programs, go online.
Clips from Ragtime final dress rehearsal: