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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Shaw Festival presents Ragtime

Tags: Arts
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The musical Ragtime, based on the outstanding novel by E. L. Doctorow and produced by Garth Drabinsky’s ill-fated Livent, made its world premiere at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in 1996 and went on to win multiple Tony and other awards on Broadway.

The current revival of Ragtime at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, directed by Shaw artistic director Jackie Maxwell, demonstrates once again the power of the syncopated music and lyrics to skim over a compressed narrative while still managing to power the turbines that generate emotional excitement and theatrical electricity.

The story spotlights a wealthy white family living in a New York suburb in the early years of the 20th century, whose lives intersect with the families of a poor Jewish immigrant and a black man named Coalhouse Walker Jr., who is radicalized after being victimized by racial bigots in the local fire department.

Most of the characters possess only generic labels such as “Father,” “Mother,” “Older Brother” and “Tateh”: they seem as archetypical as china figurines, yet all are players in a well-paced dramatic narrative powered largely through music. The new syncopated ragtime of the day helped to lift America “out of sedate and square, and into vibrant,” as Shaw musical director Paul Sportelli notes, adding that ragtime was the precursor to jazz.

Famous personalities of the times, including Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington, float through the production like so many Banquo’s ghosts, each espousing the ideas and energy that helped to give the era its flare. By story’s end, the survivors of all three families meld together into a single family, emblematic of the great American melting pot.

This Shaw production rekindles the kinetic spirit if not the actual fireworks of the original. Standouts among the cast include Thom Allison (Coalhouse) and Alana Hibbert (his girlfriend Sarah), whose voices were particularly strong and resonant as accompanied by the 17-piece orchestra. The cast also features the wonderful Patty Jamieson, Jay Turvey, Kate Hennig, Benedict Campbell, Julie Martell, Evan Alexander Smith and Kelly Wong; the theatrical book is by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. On stage until Oct. 14; for tickets, please visit www.shawfest.com

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People of the Comic Book: Keith Friedlander continues his series on “People of the Comic Book: Jews and the Graphic Novel,” which runs the gamut from the superhero comics to modern graphic stories like Maus and The Rabbi’s Cat. The topic on July 19 is the “History of Jewish Contributions to Comics,” and on July 26 the topic is “Will Eisner’s Contract with God.” Series continues to Aug. 9. $45 for series, $12 drop-in, students $6. Thursdays, 6:30 to 8 p.m. sharonis@mnjcc.org, 416-924-6211, ext. 0.

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Names in the News: In tribute to Argentine Jewish writer Alicia Steimberg, who died in June, jewishfiction.net has published an excerpt from Steimberg’s latest novel, Innocent Spirit, which JewishFiction editor Nora Gold had already accepted for August. Before her death, Steimberg “was delighted” to learn that her story had been accepted, Gold reports, adding: “She was also delightful. Even in the short time we corresponded, it was obvious what an unusual person she was: full of warmth and completely unpretentious.”

The website (jewishfiction.net) also features a tribute to Steimberg by translator Andrea Labinger. Born in Buenos Aires in 1933, Steimberg is best known for her 1998 novel Musicians and Watchmakers, about a Jewish family in Buenos Aires in the 1940s, told from the perspective of an adolescent girl. 

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At the Galleries: The exhibition Kids Who Can – Easter Seal Camps features the work of 13 photographers who capture the energy and enthusiasm of Canadian youth with physical and developmental disabilities at Easter Seal summer camps. Known collectively as Photosensitive, the photographers’ work is in black and white. Miles Nadal JCC Gallery, Bloor at Spadina, July 25 to Sept. 9.

Also at the MNjcc, Irene Borins Ash’s Aging Is Living, an exhibition of photos about life in long-term care homes, continues until July 22.

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