‘Ragtime’ reprised: Sweeping musical kicks off Company Theatre’s 40th season

Finn Clougherty, Jillian Griffin, Cristian Sack, Hannah Dwyer as Little Girl , Michael Hammond as Tateh , Barbara Baumgarten, Brenna Kenney, Melissa Carubia as Emma Goldman, Hilary Goodnow

METROWEST DAILY NEWS – Michael Hammond has cemented his status as a popular local performer with more than a dozen appearances at the Company Theatre in Norwell over the past 30 years.

He played Harold Hill in 2009′s “The Music Man,” and the title characters in “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 2000 and “The Will Rogers Follies” in 2006. Hammond’s favorite role, however, was Tateh in 2003′s “Ragtime.”

So it is only fitting that the lifelong Holbrook resident will return to that role this week when the Company Theatre opens its 40th season with the Tony Award-winning musical, based on the E.L. Doctorow novel, which premiered in Toronto in 1996 before opening on Broadway two years later.

Hannah Dwyer as Little Girl with Michael Hammond as her father Tateh

“This is the first time I have repeated a role at the Company Theatre. I’m glad to be able to do it, too, because this is a favorite show of mine. The music is beautiful, the story is rich, and there are opportunities for so many people to do interesting things,” said Hammond during a recent telephone interview.

It’s just those kinds of opportunities that the Company Theatre has been providing since first opening for business in the basement of the East Weymouth Congregational Church in 1978, under the leadership of co-founders and co-artistic directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman.

Jordie Saucerman and Zoe Bradford

The pair had relocated from the Midwest to Massachusetts to pursue careers in filmmaking and theater.

“We met in college and started making movies together – small films that we did in Missouri, Atlanta, and New England. I was the filmmaker and Jordie had a background in theater,” recalled Bradford by telephone recently.

“We started with nothing. In the early days, we were housecleaners by day. Theater was a matter of necessity, because it was less expensive than making movies. There was a need for live theater on the South Shore at the time, and we filled that niche.”

With a budget of $50, Bradford and Saucerman produced the Company Theatre’s debut production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in 1979. That same year, they also produced “Dracula.” By 1982, the nascent theater began producing its shows at the old Weymouth South Junior High School auditorium.

A decade later, Company acquired the Nickerson Theatre – once site of the Nickerson Machinery Company – and set up shop in Norwell.

Todd McNeel Jr. as Booker T. Washington

There, the theater has become known for its faithful staging of elaborate musicals – memorably landing an actual Vietnam War-era helicopter on stage for 2007′s “Miss Saigon,” for example.

Company continues that tradition in “Ragtime.” The sweeping epic set at the turn of the 20th century – with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens – will feature the original set from the first national tour, which played Boston’s Colonial Theatre in 1999.

In addition to presenting musicals, plays, and concerts, the theater also operates the Academy of the Company Theatre, a performing and visual arts training center for children, and Studio One, for people of all ages.

Bradford, a Hingham resident, credits an early experience with helping sustain her interest in directing, producing, and teaching theater.

“Back when we were at First Church of Weymouth, I can remember stepping outside to do something. Glancing back through a window, I could see the cast singing and dancing and just making magic happen. Right then, I knew we were making a difference in people’s lives,” she says.

“Zoe and Jordie not only took chances on me, they also believed in me even when I am not sure they thought I could come through. I was a tap dancing sailor in ‘Anything Goes,’ my first show with them, and two shows later they cast me as Che in ‘Evita.’

“It was unclear that I could carry the male lead, but they gave me the part and I got it done. Now, I tell aspiring performers to not only go somewhere that does great shows, but go where someone will also believe in you,” says Hammond.

These days, Hammond works as both a performer and a director. His production of “Peter Pan” will run November 10-18 at the Norwood Theatre, where he directs two musicals each season.

“Without the Company Theatre, I wouldn’t be a performer, and I definitely wouldn’t be a director,” says Hammond. “Zoe, Jordie, and choreographer Sally Ashton Forrest shaped me personally and professionally by letting me work with really talented people.”

Hammond places his “Ragtime” co-star Paula Markowicz, a longtime friend and collaborator, firmly at the top of that list.

“Paula and I met when we were both in first grade at the old John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Holbrook and we’ve been best friends ever since. I did my first show ever, ‘Gypsy,’ with Paula at Holbrook High School, where we also did ‘Hello, Dolly!’

In the current “Ragtime,” Markowicz – a vocalist with the Boston-based “Divas with a Twist” – plays the role of Mother, as she did in 2003.

“Paula’s character, a wealthy, married woman from New Rochelle, and mine, a Jewish immigrant and silhouette maker from Latvia with a young daughter, meet briefly at a New York train station en route to Lawrence, Mass. Later, after Mother is widowed, they meet again on a film set in Atlantic City where a romance blossoms,” says Hammond.

And while Hammond said he knows he will be in good company at Company – the cast of 40 also features Peter Adams, reprising his role as Father from the national tour, and busy Boston actor Davron Monroe as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. – he is most looking forward to working again with Markowicz, who now makes her home in East Bridgewater.

“Paula’s enthusiasm always pulls me along. We trust each other completely, too, so we’ll be having the time of our lives,” he says.

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By R. Scott Reedy