When you hear “community theatre” you might think of old divas with minimal talent who are holding on to a failed dream that never came true. That jaded opinion is one I might have believed – but I’ve been exposed to some fantastic community theatre this year. And Fairfield Summer Theatre’s “Ragtime” is a great example of what happens with the right cast and crew.
It’s the story of a family, headed by “Mother” and “Father” who become entangled with an African American couple (“Sarah” and “Coalhouse Walker, Jr.”) and their new baby. Meanwhile, there’s a sub story with an immigrant and his daughter that intersects with the main plot line, as well. There’s some major story here and its pretty dark. Very dark for community theatre; I’m surprised it was chosen. But this group more than pulled it off. (No spoilers here; I don’t want to ruin it for you as I had the pleasure of going to see it cold and you should too.)
This show is directed very well but I also contend that if you have the foresight to cast professional quality performers then you directing is easy. Ryan Heinrich chose his leads well. Kaela O’Connor, who plays “Mother” is absolutely stunning. She has a maturity to her voice but also to her acting that puts her in another league. Her vocals on the stirring “Back to Before” were as good as anything you’ll hear all season in any theatre in town. And I’m not surprised, given she’s a rising senior at UC-CCM this fall. She’s got unlimited potential and from what I understand is almost savant-like in her ability to memorize lines, songs, dance, and blocking. I’m excited to follow her career.
Her “Younger Brother” is played by Wright State senior Sean Jones, and his ability to play tortured and emotionally complex men (like his brilliant turn as Alvin in Mad Anthony’s “The Story of My Life”) is uncanny. I can’t wait to see his “Leaf Coneybear” next week in this group’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” He’s someone I will continue to go out of my way to watch.
Perhaps the most challenging role is that of “Coalhouse Walker.” He has to be charismatic, charming, polite, and then angry, brooding, and dangerous. Derrick Jordan can do all of that and more. Oh and can he sing. His overall ability to convey emotion, confidence, and personality on stage should take him as far as he wants to go should he continue to pursue this as a career. I sincerely hope that he does.
There were other standout performances. Mike Embree, Madeline Drees, and young Nathan Sansone all helped gel this outstanding production together. There were some weaker elements, but again the direction tried to minimize this in favor of the outstanding performances, orchestra, and tech. The set was quite functional and of professional quality. Emily Brinkman’s choreography was well thought out and engaging. The costumes were well designed. Even during the final dress rehearsal, the audio and lighting were on par (with a few minor glitches). All in all, I was quite impressed and hope to come back next year to see more from this outstanding group of folks. This is easily a must see production.
RAGTIME plays tonight, tomorrow, and Sunday at Fairfield High School in Fairfield, Ohio. Tickets and more information can be found here. Next week, they will produce “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” in the more intimate Kathleen Sullivan Studio Theatre.