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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Ragtime’ revives spirit of era with big aspirations

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‘Ragtime’ (The Musical)/ The Two of Us Productions/ Hudson High School Auditorium

IT CAN BE DELIGHTFUL to be thrust back to the days of big-cast musicals performed on big stages, with a big orchestra — on the floor, if not “in the pit.” Even the use of curtains to delineate scenes and places can feel fresh after years and years of avoiding them.

While the rest of the theater world is busy paring down productions as near to zero as possible (the one-person non-musical having become a big favorite), the Two of Us Productions dares to insist on live, full orchestras.

This is a good thing. Right?

Yes, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing. At the opening performance of Ragtime in Hudson the orchestra (abetted by a less-than-wonderful sound system for the actors) nearly obliterated most underscored dialogue and most lyrics. The stage, in spite of some excellent things going on there, could not compete with the orchestra.

That said, let’s look at some on-stage good stuff.

The historical period is vivid. Real people from history: Henry Ford, Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbitt and Emma Goldman are dropped into a story of three fictional families, one WASP, one immigrant Jewish and one black. (Nesbitt is nicely played by a saucy Tara K. Young. Louise Pillai is a slim and rousing Emma.)

There are a number of attractive voices in this cast, including tenor Francesco C. Archina as Mother’s Younger Brother and (in spite of an occasional pitch problem) Jacqueline Salvatore as Sarah.

However, this production has two people to be especially grateful for: Paul Carter as Coalhouse Walker and Constance Lopez as Mother.

Carter plays down the showy performer-ladies-man aspect of Coalhouse, emphasizing instead his warmth, conflict and rage. Carter’s good singing serves meaning. (He does not draw attention to vocal technique.) Those assets, combined with his big, virile look, gives the Coalhouse character strong, individual life.

The stage-ease and authority of lovely Constance Lopez (as a quintessentially upper middle class, turn-of-the-century mother) creates a woman who is intensely feminine and empathetic — but well equipped with a clear head and a solid backbone. After a whole evening of excellent work, Lopez sabotages her late second-act song (Back to Before) with a common vocal issue called registration. Vocal discomfort robs her of concentration. This should be fixed. (For the musical “Follies” on Broadway, Bernadette Peters recently solved a similar problem. Snag Bernadette’s voice teacher?)

Director Stephen Sanborn has a good eye for stage-pictures. He does nice things with levels and groupings, though some moments (such as scenes between the Jewish immigrant and his daughter) are too static, and the important moment in which Coalhouse is shot seems rushed and lacks impact.

This anthem-heavy score wears its heart on its ragtime sleeves, and the orchestrations would be old-timey fun — if only the group would just cool it a bit.

Still, the Two of Us Productions is a gutsy little-big theater company. Their Ragtime embraces history, race, music, and hard personal choices. It evokes feelings of national pride and anger that you may have thought you had outgrown.

Those feelings are worth digging up.

Reserve tickets at 866 811-4111 or 518 758-1648. Ragtime plays through October 30. For more visit www.TheTwoOfUsProductions.org.

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