Vaudeville meets burlesque
From the January, 2015 issue
The dictionary defines ragtime as "a kind of American dance music, characterized by highly syncopated rhythm," and extravaganza as "a lavish, spectacular theatrical production." You won't find the phrase "ragtime extravaganza" in any dictionary, but in the past few years in Ann Arbor it has come to mean that it's January and time for the annual Ragtime Extravaganza.
Ragtime was born in the red-light districts of St. Louis and New Orleans, but some of its finest modern-day scholars, performers and composers, including the late William Albright, Bill Bolcom and Joan Morris, and James Dapogny, are Ann Arborites. And the River Raisin Ragtime Revue, the thirteen-piece ragtime orchestra that specializes in authentic performances of early twentieth-century American music and is the host and house band of the Extravaganza, draws members from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti as well as from its home base in Tecumseh. This year's Extravaganza, the fourth, showcases those local luminaries, Bolcom and Morris and Dapogny, as well as the Friars, the male vocal octet of the University of Michigan Glee Club, and Erin Morris and Her Ragdolls, the Ypsilanti-based ragtime and early jazz dance ensemble. John Neville-Andrews, head of the U-M theater performance department, will repeat as MC and will undoubtedly again wear loud clothes and tell wonderfully bad jokes. ("These musicians will play like they've never played before--in tune, sober.") And, true to vaudeville tradition, the R4's drummer will no doubt catch the punch lines with a resounding rim shot and flam.
In addition to the stellar local talent assembled for this old-time variety show, the Extravaganza will also feature guitarist Pat Donohue and pianist/clarinetist Butch Thompson of A Prairie Home Companion fame; Adam Swanson and Ethan Uslan, winners of the World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest; and tap dance stars Joseph Sammour and Brinae Ali. Burlesque dancer Mimi Mischief will add period routines to complete the Extravaganza's recreation of the golden age of ragtime. Everyone who attended last year no doubt remembers her balloons-only
outfit and how she popped the balloons one by one, in rhythm to "The Stripper."
In its day, as River Raisin Ragtime Revue founder and director William Pemberton writes, much of this music "was restricted to the bordellos and barrooms where African Americans were allowed to entertain." It is fitting that although ragtime's heyday ended a decade before the Michigan Theater opened in 1928, it now can serve as the perfect and beautiful setting for remembering and celebrating the music and culture of that period and the people who created it. No history class was ever this much fun.
The Ragtime Extravaganza is Saturday, January 17.
[Originally published in January, 2015.]
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