A SINGULARLY RELEVANT ‘RAGTIME’ AT THE BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE
THIS IS A REMARKABLE JOB OF THEATRICAL MAGIC WITH SUPERB PERFORMANCES BY AN
OVERWHELMINGLY TALENTED COMPANY
Their are not many opening numbers like the stunning first moments of the vibrant RAGTIME, An American Musical. Berkeley Playhouse continues their sold out 10th season of award winning productions. If racism and anti-immigrant bigotry, now part of the Trump era and corrupted wealth are in the headlines today, the 1998 Broadway musical “Ragtime” at the Julia Morgan stage through March 18th is a compelling reminder that they are part of America’s DNA. Berkeley Playhouse presents its most ambitious production to date, featuring a company of over forty-five actors and musicians from throughout the Bay Area.
Founding Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy says “This production of Ragtime marks a seminal moment for Berkeley Playhouse - Ragtime raises the bar for us in many ways (it is) one of the largest musicals in our history. It is a musical that has grown far more immediate, and relevant, with age, and I’m thrilled to be presenting it to our audiences.” BPH Artistic Director Kimberly Dooley, says “One of the goals of our 10th season was to work with some of our most treasured artistic collaborators. The artists seen on stage and behind the scenes is a dream for us. Director William Hodgson, choreographer Alex Rodriguez, set and props designer Kirsten Royston and costume designer Lisa Danz are bringing a stirring vision of early 1900s.”
Hodgson has created a brilliant vision of writer Terrence McNally’s work, “Ten years ago I listened to the RAGTIME album and fell in love with it” says Hodgson, “ in 2018 all of us are thrust into conversations that question our values, privilege and freedoms.”
Set in the early 1900's, RAGTIME, written by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, mixes multiple stories of social justice, false freedom and what the American dream can become. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s best selling novel “Ragtime,” written in 1975, was a movie in 1981 and moved to the stage 15 years later. Using catchy, pop music ragtime and a feast of heart wrenching, full volume songs that will leave you wanting more. Music Director Daniel Feyer and his eight member orchestra bring a full rendering of Stephen Flaherty’s panoramic, tuneful score. The sweeping tide of songs pays tribute to ragtime composer Scott Joplin, as well as Sousa marches, parlor songs, Yiddish melodies and Broadway jazz.
RAGTIME shows three families: the white elite, a Harlem musician, and a Latvian Jewish family during the peak popularity of Ragtime music at the turn of the 20th Century. The impressive opening number “Ragtime” tells the story of social classes. Hodgson and TBA award winning choreographer Alex Rodriguez created one of the best version on this opening number I have seen. Bringing in the three groups from the aisles of the sold out Julia Morgan theatre, and creating a carousel of generations on stage. The opening number alone is worth the price of the ticket.
The story show offers a kaleidoscopic view of urban America in the early 1900s. The three families dominating the story are fictional as their paths intersect and merge. But Doctorow’s story is rooted in history as cameos from historic personalities such as Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington and Harry Houdini tie together the fictional stories of the three groups.
The cast of 45 includes some of the best in the Bay actors, some new to the BPH and some alumni members, including the slick perfect Dave J. Abrams as the powerhouse Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the elegant Marissa Rudd as Sarah. Their song “The Wheels of a Dream” show off both their pitch perfect voices in a song that describes a true American Dream. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, shifting to its main characters randomly as they all intertwine. Numbers like "What a Game", "Crime of the Century" and "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc" give much needed breathers amidst gut punch numbers like "Back to Before" and "Your Daddy's Son". Choreographer Alex Rodriguez brings a vibrant dance look to RAGTIME that is not really a dance show. The wonderful jazz/hip hop incorporated in “Gettin Ready Rag” shows off the Harlem men along with Coalhouse show stopping dance number.
“Journey On” features the immigrant Taheh played by the superb Mischa Stephens, Mother played by the gifted Mindy Lym and local favorite Brian Watson as Father who bring this important song amazing emotion. Stephens’ emotional journey as Tateh is well demonstrated, and he is engaging to watch even as part of the background action. His voice is a force, and his character's determination pulls at all the emotions his immigrant political climate has evoked in his solo song :Gliding” and “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay.”
Photos by Ben Krantz
Andrea Dennison-Laufer delivers real life character Evelyn Nesbit (Crime of Century) with the perfect sexy flirt and swagger: Brava! The marvelous Jessica Coker as Emma Goldman decries the poverty and injustice that are by products of robber baron bosses and Coker belts out “The Night Goldman Spoke at Union Square.” The bold Anthony Rollins-Mullens delivers a stunning performance as Booker T. Washington whose character in the story makes fine points in the song “Coalhouse Demands” Mullens voice is exceptional. The riveting Sam C Jones is wonderful as Younger Brother Edgar, a character you love, hate, despise and want to emulate all at the same time as he display courage for Coalhouse. He makes us feel his anguish and his solo “What a Game” is flawless. Jones is also the first rate fight captain for the few moments of violence in the arc of the story.
Rudd’s softness and sensitivity give the role of Sarah an instant sadness and beauty that is nearly anguish emotion come to life. She also has a lovely voice that she puts to good use in her moving solo, “President,” she makes a noble mark with her passion an emotion. Abrams has a voice that demands you sit up and pay attention and he brings Coalhouse that powerhouse unforgettable performance. The powerhouse Jacqueline Dennis as Sarah’s friend and Abrams deliver a magnificent rendition of the first act finale, “Till We Reach That Day,” that brought the BPH audience to their feet for a standing ovation just for intermission.
With a cast of 45, I wish I could mention them all, including some stand out performances from the compelling Matt Davis as Henry Ford and an angry fireman. Johnny Davidson, Ted Zoldan, Scottie Woodard, Marcel Saunders, Ji-Yun Kim, Courtney Merrell,Briel Pomerantz , Abby Williams Campbell, The T, Chanel Tilghman, Serene Hammami, Andrea Dennison Laufer, Jacqueline Dennis and Keala Freitas all play various characters that support this huge dynamic musical. The dapper adorable BPH regular, Don Hardwick, plays Grandfather who asks Colehouse “Do you know any coon songs” and he sharply replies “Coon songs are made for minstrel shows. White men sing them in blackface. This is called Ragtime” - as the melody fills the Julia Morgan sold out opening night.
The children cast is divided into the New York and Atlantic City youth casts, and each child is capable in their roles in both companies. The charming Elijah Cooper, and spunky Joe Krenn play the icon “Little Boy.” Both their talents shine in their number with Watson as Father “What A Game.” The Little girl is double cast with Emma Curtin and Molly Graham who both show off their professional skills in the song “A Shtetl lz Amereke”. Samara Minor and Joshua Hankerson, both full of energy, sparkle in their short appearance as the grown up Coalhouse Walker III.
The craft team for this production is magnificent, Costume designer Lisa Danz and her assistant Marissa Mann have a huge demand for a cast that needs new looks for almost each scene in this two and half hour show. Danz button perfect period costumes are a highlight especially for the Harlem cast, and Nesbit’s classic sexy swing feather boa look. Lighting by Bo Tindell is especially dramatic as he contrived the boats full of migrants entering New York, and works some magic when the stage lights up in the second act fireworks.
Scenic Designer Kristen Royston’s and set painter Adeline Smith’s very clever multi-level set creates a vision of class difference and the American dream. The opening gazebo that turns into a carousel is breathtaking as the whole main floor set folds back for the three classes to waltz around each other. Royston also created all the props including the Ragtime piano that doubles for the Ford Model A car that Coalhouse is a proud owner. The sound design is by Desired Effect under the direction of Lyle Barrere and his team including Josh Price kept the fireworks awesome and the immigrant ships a distant whisper. Stage manager Shannon Reilly and her team Caylyn Renee and Emma Gossett have the huge assignment of getting 45 players on and off stage as smooth as the set folds like a butterfly to reveal JP Morgan's Library.
Directed thoughtfully by Hodgson this is RAGTIME with opulent staging as he uses the entire Julia Morgan venue to tell this three-stranded narrative epic. This is a musical not meant as a dance show, yet Rodriguez’s sparking choreography is always a scene stealer. As the show finished, the cast came together, with passion, hope that maybe, someday, the themes won't have to be illustrated as necessarily as now.
They represent threads in the American social fabric, a vibrant but fragile tapestry that strains at the seams. It is a remarkable job of theatrical magic providing superb musical performances by an overwhelmingly talented company. This is the highlight of the winter season as this show takes us into spring. Next up at the BPH is JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH that opens in April. Congratulations to the BPH on their Bay Area Critics Circle five nominations for URINETOWN including Best Musical. But in the meantime tickets are going fast for RAGTIME, and this is a must see this winter.
Berkeley Playhouse 10th Season Presents
An American Musical
Written by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s
Directed by William Hodgson,
Music Director Daniel Feyer, Choreographer Alex Rodriguez
Must close March 18, 2018
Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley
Running time: 2.5 hours, one intermission
Tickets: $25-$40; 510-845-8542 x351
Check website for Pay What You Can performances
Photos by Ben Krantz Studio
PAY WHAT YOU CAN
Two performances are
“Pay What You Can”
Thursday March 1 and 8 at 7pm. The promotion is CASH ONLY at the door one-hour prior to performance time. BPH request a donation of $20 per ticket but are able to accept a minimum of $5 per ticket.