The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 7, 2003


Theatre Review Ragtime at CCHS
Performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday

After watching an open dress rehearsal of the musical Ragtime at Concord-Carlisle High School last week, an elderly woman who had been stirred by the performance sought out teacher and director Chuck Brown.

"This has given the students a lot to think about," she commented. Then, after a moment, she added, "It has given me a lot to think about."

Jen Fantasia and Amy Chateauneuf, both Carlisle sophomores, portray immigrants in the CCHS production of Ragtime.

Ragtime, which continues its run at the high school this weekend, is entertainment with a message. Set in New York in 1906 and focusing on three distinct groups of the time newly arrived immigrants, African-Americans and members of high society Ragtime unflinchingly grapples with such issues as racism, injustice and violence. Yet it also carries a message of compassion, justice, and unflagging hope. Heavy themes for a high school play and frankly, a unique opportunity for education.

"I knew stuff like this happened, but now I realize how much of an impact things had on people," says Olivia Vienneau of Carlisle, a sophomore who appears on stage as one of the dancing "Sob Sisters." "It's clearer to me now, how hard life was for certain groups of people in this time period."

The tone is set from the beginning of the show. The opening number features members of high society strutting across the stage in all their finery and congratulating themselves in song on how wonderful life is in their corner of New York, along with the fact that "there are no Negroes here." Immediately the Harlem cast takes the stage, with swagger and attitude. Looking somewhat uncertain now, the gentry sings that at least in their paradise, "there are no immigrants." Enter the chorus of ragtag immigrants in homespun outfits and shawls, much to the chagrin of the wealthy New Yorkers. The rest of the show spotlights the contact and clashes among (and within) the three groups as they learn to live together in turn-of-the-century America.

The opening number provides a powerful and impressive on-stage spectacle, featuring an amazing array of period costumes, professional-looking sets, and the sheer, overwhelming presence of 80 Concord-Carlisle High School students (and two teachers), all singing their hearts out. This opening makes a promise for quality entertainment that continues to be delivered throughout the show.

Carlisle sophomores Christine Shaver and Jenny Zuk.

Because this is a musical about groups of people and how they interact, often the busiest performers in Ragtime are members of the chorus (they're featured in 16 out of the 20 scenes, and often have more costume changes than the lead players, Brown claims), and indeed, this chorus is rock solid. The leads add the personal touches to the story.

Tateh (played by junior Matthew Divino), is a Jewish immigrant looking for a better life for his daughter, and who finds himself involved in the birth of the motion picture industry. Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (junior Brian Gaines), is a fiery black piano man who demands justice when his Model T is destroyed by a mob of white thugs. His love interest is a shy black woman named Sarah (junior Joliete Jean-Joseph), who has been taken in by a wealthy New Rochelle family, featuring a change-resistant Father (senior John Wilson), compassionate Mother (senior Chrissy Schoellkopf), Little Boy (Concord sixth-grader Ian Cooper), and Younger Brother (sophomore, and Carlisle resident, Alex Brewer). Dispersed throughout the story are historical figures such as Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington (portrayed by CCHS history teacher Joseph Zellner), activist Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan (Carlisle sophomore Michael Johnson) and Harry Houdini (Carlisle senior Michael Chateauneuf).

"I really like my character. He represents the story well, because he goes through such a transformation," says Brewer of his role as Younger Brother. (His last stage experience was as the constable in Carlisle's seventh-grade play, Fiddler on the Roof in 2000.) "[Younger Brother] is a person who has so much fire in him. He's just looking for a vessel." The character ultimately becomes an activist for social justice, singing of his new-found zeal in "The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square," the perfect vehicle to showcase Brewer's solid knock-your-socks-off singing voice.

There have been, Brown allows, many challenges in getting Ragtime onto the CCHS stage. Much of it had to do with sheer numbers, as the show requires a huge cast, hundreds of costumes (an exhausted-looking Susie Schmidt of Carlisle has been responsible for procuring or creating many of them), and large set pieces. And as one of the first high schools to mount this production ever (rights were just made available in September), Brown and his crew have been breaking new ground.

Carlisle senior Michael Chateauneuf as Harry Houdini is surrounded by Evelyn Nesbit (Laura Belkner) and the Sob Sisters, including Carlisle sophomore Olivia Vienneau (far left).

Another challenge that required a leap of faith early in the process of casting Ragtime, involved getting enough African-American students to audition. With Concord and Carlisle being predominantly white communities, there was a great need to draw upon students from Boston who participate in the METCO (Metropolitan Council for Education Opportunity) program. These students,predominantly African-American, Hispanic and Asian, are transported to Concord to offset racial imbalances in both communities, while offering broader educational and social experiences for everyone. Certainly, the experience of Ragtime has celebrated and embodied these very goals.

"I've gotten to meet people I wouldn't otherwise have known, and really bonded with them," says Olivia Vienneau. "It's important to meet new people instead of being in your own little bubble."

"People are very happy that [Ragtime] has provided a unique opportunity for lots of kids; of all different races, kids who have never been on stage before, kids who have never even thought much about musical theater before," Brown says. "This is a great story that the kids are really dedicated to telling. Taking it on was a huge undertaking, but the kids are doing phenomenally well."

Ragtime will be performed tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 in the Concord-Carlisle High School auditorium. Tickets are $12 each and are available at Daisy's Market in Carlisle, or in Concord at The Cheese Shop, the West Concord 5 & 10, Video Revolution, and The Toy Shop of Concord, or at the door. (Get there early tickets are nearly sold out!)

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito