Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Tap Your Toes to Ragtime Women

This show is Chicago meets the Andrews Sisters, and it will have you humming along. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Last weekend, I saw two shows and neither had a single man on stage (unless you count a lone accompanist - but he had no speaking lines so I'll give it a pass). 

This wasn't intentional on my part, but it was striking, and it made me realize: how often does theater (or film, or books...) truly center the female experience? I mean we've all heard of the Bechdel Test, and more and more productions are working to fill the female character gap. But how often do you see a story told entirely from the perspective of women, without a single element of the male gaze around to change it? 

It's pretty rare. And that focus on untold female stories is why you should also go see Ragtime Women, running at Dreamland Arts for one more week. Like many forms of popular art, ragtime (which was popular in the early 20th century and a prelude to the jazz and blues craze of the 1940s) was (on the surface, at least) dominated by white men. As a new art form, however, ragtime presented new opportunities for women and people of color to get a foot in the door and earn some money on their artistic talents. Much like early cinema, many women and people of color capitalized on this opportunity by submitting work with pen names or sticking to work behind the scenes; through their participation, they greatly contributed to moving the art form forward. Ragtime Women follows four real-life female ragtime composers and performers who found ways to get footholds in this new world. The show loosely narrates their story in between performing many of their songs, providing a narrative to connect the clear evolution of ragtime music in between. It's an ingenious way to construct a narrative out of thin air, and although it takes some liberties with historical context, Ragtime Women gives an accessible snapshot of what many of the pressures facing women at the time who wished to have a career outside of the home, particularly in the world of popular music. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Jen Maren opens the show as Cora Salisbury, a renowned ragtime composer and performer who worked the vaudeville circuit in the Midwest. Maren has a spunky delivery and perfectly mimics the corny jokes of hosts of the vaudeville era. Christine Polich leads the action through the story as determined ingenue Julia Niebergall, who is inspired to get in the ragtime business after seeing Cora perform and grows by leaps and bounds throughout the show. Polich has a witty charm that is reminiscent almost of an Anne of Green Gables, and she fits her role excellently. Tara Shaefle makes a brief appearance as Gladys Yelvington, an extremely talented composer who stops working as soon as she is married. And Krin McMillen brings all social issues to a crux as May Aufderheide, the most prolific of all the artists features and the most conflicted (she leaves the business at the behest of her less successful husband). McMillen's sweet delivery really hits the conflict Aufderheide must have felt home, as she grapples with the choice between who and what she loves. It's a conflict that is far too common still today, and it's hard to see her character leave her passion behind. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

The set is almost nonexistent, with a simple couch, desk, and vanity piece on stage. These are used intermittently with strategic lighting and function to create far more context than you might first assume. Harrison Wade sits on stage at a piano to accompany the ladies, which gives the performance a spontaneous, authentic feel to each ragtime jam. My favorite element was the use of a projector to show old film shorts, vaudeville scenes, and to provide some historical context at the beginning and end of the show. The screen really ties the vignettes together, and it provides some great information for those who refuse to wade through the exhaustive program notes. 

Photo courtesy of Theatre Elision.

Ragtime Women is an exciting upstart performance about women who refuse to let societal standards define them. Filling in one more missing piece of history, Ragtime Women tells a vital story about female composers and performers, as well as life as a women in the Midwest at the turn of the 20th century. The show brings this history to colorful life and revisits many toe-tapping tunes you have probably never heard of. Ragtime was far more than Scott Joplin and vaudeville was more than the Orpheum circuit, although you'd never know it if you flipped through a history book. It's fascinating to learn more about these art forms, especially since they're so responsible for much of the popular entertainment we enjoy today. Ragtime Women is only running for one more week, so make sure you check it out at Dreamland Arts before it closes on May 14. You can find more information and purchase tickets by clicking on this link

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