“Ragtime’ risky business for Main Street

Morning Call (Allentown, PA)
August 12, 2004 Thursday FIFTH EDITION

“Ragtime’ risky business for Main Street

By Myra Yellin Outwater Special to The Morning Call – Freelance

Artistic risk for theater management is a relative term depending on
geography, ensemble, casting pool and audience.

Risky subject matter on Broadway could carry multi-million dollar
consequences; financial risk is less Off Broadway, where profit
ratios are smaller, audiences are less mainstream and filling seats
depends more on word of mouth.

The issues are different yet when talking risk in local theater.
Directors can’t just choose any play, they have to know that an
appropriate cast is available. And, to quote Harold Hill, “you gotta
know your territory,” meaning it is a brave or, perhaps, foolhardy
director who mounts a show without knowing how it will play.

That said, I admire Main Street Theatre Artistic Director Bill
Mutimer’s gutsy choice of “Ragtime,” which opened Wednesday at the
Quakertown theater. The 1998 Tony Award winning musical based on E.
L. Doctorow’s ambitious family saga takes a look at the social
changes of the 20th century. Its elaborate plot weaves together the
stories of three families — a family of northern blacks, a family of
Russian Jewish immigrants and an upper class WASP family. The
vignettes are held together with a wonderful sweeping score that
explores ragtime, a uniquely American form of music.

“Can you really do this show?” I asked Mutimer at a recent interview.
And the unflappable director replied with a big smile and the
confidence of a Barnum, “Of course!”

But, conceded Mutimer, he had several aces up his sleeve. First, his
casting problem was solved with the African Americans in his
38-member multi-racial ensemble. Cessalee Smith-Stovall has already
delighted audiences this summer in “Barnum,” “How to Succeed” and
“Mame.” Other African Americans performing in lead roles are Michael
Howard and Leo Sheridan.

In addition, Mutimer has cast Kate Varley and David Button from
DeSales University in two of the leading roles and Lori Sivick,
another local theater mainstay, in another.

“Some people have asked why don’t we just do the usual kinds of
summer musicals,” says Mutimer. “But this is such a wonderful show
and I don’t want to keep doing what everyone else does.”

So far this summer Mutimer has had a good track record presenting
seldom-produced Broadway musicals. The season opened with an
energetic “Barnum,” the offbeat Cy Coleman musical bio of Phineas T.
Barnum. Next came “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

And now comes the most ambitious of the three. Not only does
“Ragtime” have a multi-racial cast, but it also has a sweeping story
line and many scenic changes, including a trip to the North Pole. The
cast must play real-life characters ranging from Harry Houdini, Emma
Goldman, Robert Peary, Harry Thaw, Stanford White and Evelyn Nesbitt,
the original “girl on the red velvet swing.”

Then there’s the need for period costumes for a large cast — the
original script calls for 60 players; Mutimer’s ensemble will play
double roles.

In order to create thematic unity, each family has its own color
scheme — white and navy for the WASPS, rusts and olives for the
African Americans and blacks and grays for the Jewish immigrants.
Mutimer is working with local costumer Scaramouche.

So with all these pluses, why is “Ragtime” such a risk?

“Our real problem, is that people don’t know this show and so it has
to be a big sell. People in this area seem to want to see shows that
they know. So tell them that the score is wonderful and it’s fun to
stage. We are even building Evelyn Nesbitt’s velvet swing.”

“Ragtime,” 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and Aug.
26, through Aug. 28, Main Street Theatre, 10 S. Main St., Quakertown.
Tickets: $20; $18, seniors, students; $12, Wednesday; $16, Sunday.


Muhlenberg Summer Music Festival director Charles Richter also took a
risk this summer by presenting a new revue, “Made in America: Irving
Berlin,” which runs through Sunday. But what makes this show about
the immigration experience less risky is a well-known score of Irving
Berlin songs and New York professionals Shawn Churchman and David
Bishop running the show. In addition Churchman has brought along two
of his original cast members — Silva Mateosian and Mary Lou Barber.

Mateosian says it was her professional friendship with Churchman that
got her her first role in the show when it premiered two years ago in
Stamford, Conn. But it was her Armenian ancestry which got her the
callback to reprise the role in Allentown.

“There aren’t a lot of Armenians in the theater,” says Mateosian, who
plays a shy, nave Armenian immigrant. Mateosian morphs from an Old
World European dressed in a shawl singing “God Bless America” to a
show-stopping flapper dressed in black sequins who heats up the tempo
with a flirtatious rendition of a lesser known Berlin romp, “I Left
the Door Open and My Daddy Walked In.”

“When I was first cast in the show, I thought we would just be
singing some Berlin lyrics and all we had to do was learn some new
songs,” says Mateosian. “But soon Shawn started asking us to go and
research our own families and come back with stories. I learned a lot
about my family and Shawn used a lot of my stories.”

Mateosian says her father was Armenian and her mother was born “a
true blue American.” She knew that her grandmother was a survivor of
the Armenian genocide in Turkey, and that her father came to this
country at the age of 23. But she did not know she could trace her
theatrical talents to her mother’s side. Her maternal grandfather was
a dentist who also toured in minstrel companies. He played a woman
because he was a small man. “He developed a funny alter ego named
Sadie,” says Mateosian, adding her maternal grandmother was part of a
family orchestra that played in theaters in the days of the silent

“Made in America: Irving Berlin,” 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2
p.m. Sunday, ends Sunday. Muhlenberg College, Trexler Pavilion, 24th
and Chew streets, Allentown. Tickets: $28; $25, seniors; $15, youth.

Myra Yellin Outwater is a freelance arts writer and member of New
York’s Drama Desk, a group of journalists who bestow the annual Drama
Desk Awards.

Go Guide Editor Jodi Duckett

[email protected]