Last year, 2,300 people witnessed performances of Akron’s first All-City Musical, Hairspray, a new opportunity for high school students from across the Akron region to come together to make a musical at the Akron Civic Theatre.
Now, the Civic is running with the successes of last year’s production and moving forward with its second annual All-City show, the grand spectacle Ragtime, winner of four 1998 Tony Awards. The show will run for three performances Friday and Saturday.
“This is giving a whole different section of the community the ability to come in and experience theater,” said Civic spokeswoman Valerie Renner, who stressed that the downtown venue wants to be known as a theater for the community, including teens and young adults.
The 1960s-themed Hairspray is bubblegum-cute on the surface, but with a serious message about racial equality. Ragtime continues that message in a deeper vein, on a larger scale and in an epic historical setting — at the turn of the 20th century.
The professionally managed Ragtime features 45 young cast members, 25 pit musicians and a $50,000 budget, up from last year’s $40,000. The production is supported by PNC, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Ohio Arts Council, Akron Community Foundation, Mary and Dr. George Demetros Charitable Trust and Friends of the Akron School for the Arts.
At a recent rehearsal at the University of Akron, the cast ran through Coalhouse Demands, which begins a series of high-tension scenes in Act II in which ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, played by Jalen Mitchell, goes on a rampage against racial injustice, taking one of the main characters hostage and threatening to blow up J.P. Morgan’s library. Booker T. Washington (Christopher Humbert) tries to talk sense into the angry men and Coalhouse has a change of heart, with Mitchell singing an impassioned Make Them Hear You about their legacy.
“You are in that moment and you are highly engaged. … Your nerves are on edge and you’re running on adrenaline,” director Mark Zimmerman coached the male ensemble. “Let Coalhouse’s song affect you. Don’t just stand there and accept it. React to it a bit.”
Baritone Mitchell, who just graduated from Firestone High School, where he sang in four choirs, is singing his biggest role yet. He began singing in church at age 3 and has studied voice since age 9, receiving classical training at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts and with private voice teacher Sue Wallin.
“He has this fantastic voice with a very wide range. It’s a beautiful instrument,” Zimmerman said of his male star. “He’s got really high energy. Onstage, he’s always on. Your eyes are naturally attracted to him because he’s a really strong performer.”
Coalhouse is a deeply conflicted character who ends up taking deadly action in this story, based on the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow.
“He ultimately is a good person and he is standing up for a cause. But sometimes, even now in the present day, we oftentimes as humans get carried away by our causes and we let anger and frustration take over and we lose sight of what we were after,” Mitchell said.
The performer is headed to Capital University, where he has a full-tuition scholarship as a music education major. He was drawn to Ragtime’s music, written by Stephen Flaherty.
“I appreciate the composer’s intricate way of putting together the harmonies to fit the style and the way he made the music sound to provoke a certain emotion from a listener,” he said.
The story focuses on a time of great innovation and change in America, illustrated through luminaries such as Henry Ford.
“Ford at that time was a humongous character for our country, and you could tell in the way the composer wrote the music how majestic and how powerful Henry Ford was,” Mitchell said.
As part of his preparation for Ragtime, Mitchell studied the teachings of black leader Booker T. Washington, a key character in the show.
This young musician said he also has developed an appreciation of how innovative ragtime music was at the turn of the century: “It led to jazz and blues and other types of music.”
The performer, who comes from several generations of singers, said musical theater has exposed him to different types of music and taught him self-discipline.
“My mom said a long time ago, ‘Idle time is the devil’s playground,’ ” he said. “Constructive discipline [such] as the arts really keeps kids on track.”
Arielle Reeves, who plays a friend to Sarah, Coalhouse’s love, agrees. She was so enamored of her experience as a Dynamite in Hairspray last year, she said she’d walk to rehearsal every day if necessary to be a part of this year’s production.
“I love what we do and I love the people I get to meet,” said Reeves, an Akron home-schooler who just finished her junior year.
She has spent time studying the plight of immigrants to the U.S. at the turn of the century, depicted in Ragtime by Tateh and his daughter. The play speaks out against child labor and sweatshops such as the one where Tateh works in the new world, where he has placed so much hope.
“Musical theater is important to me because it gives a twist on how you deliver different messages and morals,” Reeves said.
Zimmerman said Ragtime and Hairspray are very different musicals that offer similar messages.
“It’s telling a modern story set over 100 years ago. The message is about change, I think, and how we adapt to that change,” including social injustice, he said of Ragtime.
As a director, Zimmerman aims to build on the strengths of last year’s production: “We just want to pick good shows that kids can do.”
He continued, “It’s a show that’s mostly about the music. … People who like really good theater music are going to love this show.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.