BWW Reviews: Zach Theatre Rides the Wheels of a Dream with RAGTIME
It’s astonishing to think that RAGTIME, the musical with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, has become an American classic in the mere fourteen years since its opening on Broadway in 1998. In that short amount of time, it’s been welcomed into the elite circle of groundbreaking American musicals like SHOW BOAT and OKLAHOMA and became the first show to open in the 1990s to be revived on Broadway.
The current production of RAGTIME, produced by Zach Theatre in its new Topfer Theatre, shows precisely why RAGTIME is such a respected and important piece of theater. This dazzling and flawless production of the show is nothing short of spectacular and yet another triumph for Zach.
RAGTIME, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, follows the intertwining struggles of blacks, whites, and immigrants in turn of the century America. Each group is represented by a few of the show’s main characters. The plight of African-Americans is personified in Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his fiancée, Sarah. The white upper-class is embodied in Mother and Father of New Rochelle, New York. Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and his daughter stand as symbols for the Eastern European working class and their struggles in their new land of opportunity. As the characters clash and collide with each other, we see that the American land of hope and ideals is also a land of racism, violence, inequality, and class warfare. Interspersed through the piece are historical figures of the time, including Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Henry Ford. All together, the piece is a sprawling, epic representation of American history in the early 1900s.
While the musical itself is ambitious in scope, it succeeds in part due to the extreme talents of its creators. Four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally’s book is, like most of his other work, a well-crafted work of art. Every word is golden, and every character is completely developed and human. The score, by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, is one of the best ever heard on the American stage. With its eclectic collection of vaudeville numbers, traditional folk sounds, and (of course) ragtime jazz, the score is an impressive celebration of our heritage, complex and yet incredibly easy to listen to and entirely memorable.
No production of this American epic would succeed without a strong design team. Indeed, in order for the struggles of these characters to ring true, they must exist in a believable, period-appropriate environment. Therefore, the Zach Theatre’s design team has transformed the elegant and modern Topfer Theatre into a century old time capsule. Michael Raiford’s set is influenced by turn of the century New England Victorian architecture with some industrial overtones. Susan Branch Towne’s costumes run the gamut from lush, luxurious and clean 1900s fashions for the upper-crust to rags worn by poor immigrants. Jason Amato’s lighting, occasionally aided by videos designed by Colin Lowry, is consistently beautiful.
Choreographer Nick Demos does a fantastic job as well, despite the fact that the material gives the characters plenty of chances to break out in song but few changes to break out in dance. Still, Demos’s choreography is thrilling, whimsical, inventive and lively, especially in the vaudeville number “Crime of the Century” and the upbeat “Gettin’ Ready Rag.”
Dave Steakley’s direction is also worthy of considerable praise. RAGTIME is an ambitious, challenging, and difficult show. It can easily feel unfocused and muddled in the hands of some less talented directors. Under Dave Steakley though, this show sparkles. The full cast moments are majestic and unforgettable, but Steakley clearly understands that the smaller one and two person scenes are the true heart of the show. Steakley is keenly focused on developing relationships between his main characters and emotionally connecting his audience to the story. Under his direction, RAGTIME is equal parts traditional, grandiose musical theater and small, intimate drawing room drama.
Of course, a show as massive as RAGTIME fails miserably if the cast isn’t up to the challenge. Thankfully, this cast of fifty of Austin’s finest actors and actresses handle the material with ease and finesse. Jill Blackwood, last seen as the zany heroine in Zach’s production of XANADU, proves here that she is capable of far more than fluffy comedic roles. As Mother, Jill is endearing and vulnerable but also strong and unwavering. Ms. Blackwood is easily one of Austin’s greatest actresses, and that includes Oscar winner Sandra Bullock. Besides, I highly doubt Sandy B has as effortlessly gorgeous of a singing voice. Kyle Scatliffe gives an equally phenomenal performance as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. With his imposing height and powerful, booming voice, his Coalhouse is strong and resilient, however misguided by rage and vengeance. And the soothingly-voiced Andrew Foote breathes energy and optimism into Tateh. While Tateh can quickly fall into melodrama traps of angst and anger, allowing the character to pale in comparison to the other principles in the piece, Foote’s Tateh is engaging, sympathetic, and unwavering in his hopefulness, turning the character into a true epitome of the American Dream. Kia Dawn Fulton has the troublesome task of taking on Sarah, a role synonymous with five time Tony Award winner, Audra McDonald, but she makes the role her own. I was fortunate enough to see Audra McDonald’s strong, stoic interpretation of the role, but Ms. Fulton wonderfully re-interprets Sarah as a shy, meager, wounded young woman. It’s an unexpected and bold take, but certainly a welcome one, and her rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son” is a haunting master class in acting.
The supporting cast and ensemble are also on the top of their game. As the bigoted Father, Jamie Goodwin has a fine voice and clearly enjoys the moments where he gets to go head to head with Blackwood’s Mother. Benjamin Roberts is fantastically funny as Mother and Father’s son, Edgar. Andrew Cannata showcases his incredible gifts as an actor and singer with the perplexed and forlorn character of Mother’s Younger Brother. The gifted Jennifer Young Mahlstedt plays Evelyn Nesbit, the now forgotten vaudeville superstar, with a delicious cheekiness. As Emma Goldman, Meredith McCall is a force to be reckoned with which would indeed make the reAl Goldman proud. The entire company of fifty and the sixteen person orchestra are perfection as well, especially when Flaherty gives them soaring melodies.
It’s rare that a regional theater company can truly do justice to a piece as demanding as RAGTIME. Thankfully for Austin, the Zach Theatre is more than capable. Austinites will be buzzing about this production for years to come. What a strong start to Zach’s inaugural season at the Topfer Theatre. With their lavish new space and this glorious production, Zach Theatre is riding the wheels of a dream and will never go back to before.
Main photo: The RAGTIME ensemble (Photo by Kirk R. Tuck)
2nd photo: Brooke Silverstein as Tateh's Daughter and Andrew Foote as Tateh (Photo by Kirk R. Tuck)
3rd photo: Kia Dawn Fulton as Sarah and Kyle Scatliffe as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Photo by Kirk R. Tuck)
Run time: 2 hours 50 minutes with one 20 minute intermission
RAGTIME plays the Topfer Theatre at 202 S. Lamar, Austin, TX now thru November 18th, 2012. Performances are Wednesdays – Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm.
Tickets range from $35-$65. $18 student rush tickets are available one hour before showtime with valid student ID.
For tickets and information, call 512-476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.