THE RELEVANT MUSICAL ‘RAGTIME’ STILL HOLDS STRONG WITH TODAY'S IMMIGRANT HEADLINES
THEATREWORKS BRINGS A SUPERB CRAFT TEAM TO CREATE THE AMERICAN DREAM TO CELEBRATE JUNETEENTH 2022 AND “TILL WE REACH THAT DAY”
Reviewed by Vince Mediaa
If racism and immigration, homeless families and the Trump era are in the headlines today, the 1998 Broadway musical RAGTIME at TheatreWorks is a compelling reminder that not much has changed. The Tony award winning musical is now on stage at the Mt View Center for the Arts through June 26th. After two years on hold and COVID delays this musical was originally set to open in April 2020. Artistic Director Tim Bond says “The moment has arrived and our 51st season is now in full motion.” Directed by former AD Robert Kelly, this stunning musical was set to be his last show for season 50, but he says; “we share RAGTIME once again now profoundly relevant to our America than ever. When I retired at TheatreWorks AD, I chose RAGTIME as my final musical. Over the past two years a racial reckoning has swept the country, equality for women has become a righteous demand rather than an eventual goal.”
There are not many opening numbers like the stunning first moments of the vibrant RAGTIME, the Little Boy played by Isaiah Jackson Janssen and Joshua Parecki opens the show as they share the history of his white elite life and according to Mother, “well off” American family. The opening mix includes the Harlem occupants and immigrants who share their stories. 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 huge heart of full volume songs that will leave you wanting more. Music Director William Liberatore and his mighty 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 reveals 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. Kelley and clever choreographer and associate director Gerry McIntyre created a moving introduction to the families in the stunning opening number. The show offers a view of urban America in the early 1900s. The three families in the story are fictional as their paths intersect and merge with very real historic events along the way. Doctorow’s story is rooted in history as cameos from historic personalities such as Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington and Harry Houdini connect the fictional stories of the three families.
The cast of 17 includes some of the best in the Bay actors, some new to TheatreWorks and some local members. The exceptional Nkrumah Gatling as the powerhouse Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the elegant Iris Beaumier as Sarah. Their song “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 its main characters randomly as they all intertwine.
Numbers like "What a Game", "Crime of the Century" and "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc" give the score some smiles amidst the drama of numbers like "Back to Before" and "Your Daddy's Son". Choreographer McIntyre brings a classic dance feel to RAGTIME that is not really a dance show. The song “Gliding” featuring the authentic Leo Ash Evens as the jewish father Tateh, sings to his daughter played by the enthusiastic Sydney Freeman and Ruth Keith who charm the sold out opening night audience.
The wonderful jazz 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 Evens. Mother played by the gifted Christine Dwyer and local favorite Noel Anthony as Father who brings this important song amazing emotion. Dwyer also is flawless in her solo “What Kind Of Mother” after she discovers a newborn baby in her garden. Evens’ emotional journey as Tateh is well demonstrated, and he is engaging to watch in his number “Our Children”. His voice is also a force, and his character's determination to provide a better life for his daughter, tugs at all the emotions his immigrant political climate has evoked in the song “Success”.
The terrific Melissa WolfKlain plays real life character Evelyn Nesbit with the perfect sexy flirt and swagger. Her famous swing, designed by Scenic Designer Wilson Chin was perfect, and Houdini played by the compelling Keith Pinto was perched on Chin’s set bursting from his straight Jacket. WolfKain’s number "Crime of the Century" is a busy number featuring the cast that tells the story for her two boyfriends. The marvelous Suzanne Grodner as Emma Goldman protests the poverty and injustice and belts out “The Night Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and drives the intensity of “He Wanted To Say.” The bold Michael Gene Sullivan delivers the celebrated Booker T. Washington whose character defines the song “Coalhouse Demands” Sullivan’s voice is exceptional. The riveting Sean Okuniewicz is wonderful as Younger Brother Edgar, a character you love, hate, yet he displays courage for Coalhouse while he finds his own way. He makes us feel his anguish in the flawless “He Wanted To Say”.
Gatling has a voice that demands you sit up and pay attention and he brings Coalhouse that unforgettable performance highlighted in his solo “Make Them Hear You”. The glorious Leslie Ivy as Sarah’s friend and Gatling deliver a magnificent rendition of the first act finale, “Till We Reach That Day,” that brought the Mt View Arts Center theater sell out crowd to tears.
Every member of this cast has many hats to wear, including filling in all the chorus of the company songs. The talented players include local favorite Colin Thomson as 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 Theatre. Harry Houdini is played by the excellent Pinto who also portrays the polar opposite Willie Conklin.
“Nothing Like the City” features the two teens in the show; Little Girl and Little Boy played by four accomplished teens who rotate in the roles. “Warn the Duke” the young boy cries foreshadowing Houdini's meeting with Archduke Franz, Little Boy also acts as narrator to open the show and seems to have a talent for predicting the future.
The craft team for this production is superb, costume designer B. Modern who also had a huge demand for a cast that needed new looks for almost each scene in this two and half hour show. Modern button perfect period costumes are a highlight, especially for the Harlem cast. The lighting & effects by Pamila Gray are especially dramatic as she has a charcoal background set to reflect the many colors and moods of this epic show. Wig and Hair Designer Lindsey Saier complements Mothers look, but the fact this is about a two year story line (perhaps more) the baby never grows. I did see a young pre teen play the grown baby at Contra Costa Civic back in 2016. Few productions include a grown child at the end of the show. Fight director Jonathan Rider adds the perfect drama to the protest scenes with Emma Goldman. The life size Model T Ford is managed by Taylor McQuesten and her team; Chloe Rose Scheeizer and Emily Anderson Wolf. Props director Christoper Fitzer was able to score a life size working Ford for Coalhouse. The ideal sound, designed by Jeff Mockus kept the cast and orchestra engaged. Directed thoughtfully by Kelley, this RAGTIME keeps it simple yet the dramatic emotion of Coalhouse’s path, Mother’s transformation and Tateh’s triumph is very poignant and authentic.
As the show concludes, the cast evokes passion, hope, the definition of “family”, with themes of the power of love, redemption and forgiveness. Themes that represent threads of the American social fabric. A truly vibrant but fragile tapestry of the American Dream. The opening weekend crowds were on their feet with applause at the end of each show. Next up, TheatreWorks 51st Season includes the Bay Area premiere of NAN AND THE LOWER BODY opens July 13th. In the meantime, this summer production of RAGTIME is a must see. Tickets are selling fast - make this your perfect Juneteenth event.
An American Musical
Directed by Robert Kelley,
Music Director William Liberatore
Choreographer Gerry McInyre
Must close June 26th, 2022
Mt View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street Mountain View Ca
Running time: 2.5 hours, one intermission
Photos by David Allen