The Garden Theater
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Aherns
Directed by Mark Edward Smith
Choreographed by Carrie Crawford
Musical Direction by Robby Stamper
Starring Brandon Martin, Dayja Le’Chelle Legg, Amy Sue Lambert, David Lowe
Winter Garden, FL
It’s 1905, and an economically rising generation of blacks still get treated like slaves. Other ethnic groups have arrived and blended in; even the Irish get the fire department racket in the NYC area. But blacks gave the era Ragtime music and its broken melodies and danceable tunes were all the rage. This lengthy and rather ponderous show follows three groups as they stumble thought life in the infancy of the 20th century. The well-off suburbanites of New Rochelle take to Artic Exploration and promoting Women’s Rights. But they are anonymous to the point the author never assigns them proper names. Father (Lowe) heads north, leaving the unprepared Mother (Lambert ) to raise the kids and deal with the servants. When she finds an abandoned black infant in her garden, she decided to raise it. With Father frozen in an ice flow and no email, she pretty much does what she wants. Down in Harlem, “Coal House” Walker may have invented rag time, or maybe he just played it better than anyone. That skill makes him rich enough to buy a band new Model T, but not defend it in court. Meanwhile the Latvian immigrant Tateh (Michael Ursua) and his daughter (Scarlett Rose Russo) arrive penniless. The American Dream is a distant promise, and they toil though Act One before they find fortune on the movies.
There are more civil wrongs than rights on display here, and while interesting songs pop up reliably, there are times in Act One that felt like good stopping points like “Wheels of a Dream” (sung by Coalhouse and his fiancé Ms. Legg). But we soldier on, hoping for an exciting plot point or a chance to take a potty break and freshen up glass of wine. Besides Mr. Martins excellent two-hour slow burn and Mr. Lowe’s befuddled rich man’s burn, their son and part time narrator Younger Brother (Russell Stevens) kept us moving forward, and he sparkled in the Baseball Game number. Janine Papin had one of her best roles here as the rabble-rousing Emma Goldman, and the normally squeaky-clean Adam DelMedico got in some profanity and slurs as the Irish tough Willie Conklin.
Despite its length, this is a good capsule look at a generally positive time for America. Inventions flourished, the old ways passed although not without a fight, and the flood of immigrants ultimately made America a better place. There’s a history lesson hiding in here, but the only real test is sticking it out until the sparkling act two appears.