BWW Review: RAGTIME Celebrates the Search for Freedom and Equality at the Turn of the 20th Century
RAGTIME: The Musical, currently being presented brilliantly by Actors' Repertory Theatre of Simi at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center through December 4, 2016, is set in the volatile melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York. Based on the classic E. L. Doctorow novel, featuring a Tony Award-winning book by Terrence McNally, RAGTIME weaves together three distinctly American tales -- that of a stifled suburban mother represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; Tateh, an inventive Jewish immigrant from Latvia; and Coalhouse Walker Jr., a daring young Harlem musician - all united by their courage, compassion and belief in the promise of the future in America at the turn of the 20th Century.
With direction by David Ralphe, musical direction by Matt Park and choreography by Becky Castells, their compelling stories intertwine to form a rich tapestry of hopes and dreams, struggles and triumphs, rhythm and rhyme, set to an epic Tony Award®-winning score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. This production features glorious harmonies so necessary to capture the brilliance of its magnificent score.
Kudos go out to all three groups of performers, each introduced during the show-stopping opening number, choreographed with mind-boggling precision by Becky Castells with each of the ensembles circling the others.Beginning with the HARLEM ensemble led by Jeremy Whatley as Coalhouse Walker Jr. whose stage presence and incredible voice ignite the entire production as he demands justice for a crime committed against him simply for the color of his skin, Alescia Penn as his beloved Sarah, Sara Owinyo as Sarah's friend who lovingly sings the emotional "Til We Reach That Day" at Sarah's funeral, Louis Baker as Booker T. Washington who desperately tries to stop the use of violence as a method to achieve justice, Donovan Wright as Matthew Henson (first officer to Admiral Perry) and also as a member of the Coalhouse Gang, Bryce Brady as Ensemble/Coalhouse Gang, Claudia Stone-Sheppard in the Ensemble, Pamela Bassett in the Ensemble, and Chai Baker who appears at the end of the show as Young Coalhouse who will go on and live his life on the "Wheels of a Dream" imagined for him by his mother and father.
The IMMIGRANT ensemble is led by Will Shupe who masters a proper Eastern European accent and body language as Tateh who comes to America to make a better life for himself and learns the rules of "Success" for his Little Girl (a role shared by Mia Vavasseeur and Samantha Hirschhorn), Meghan Jones portrays Emma Goldman, the socialist who raised her voice in support of labor unions, David Bañuelos as master escape artist and immigrant Harry Houdini, and the immigrant ensemble made up of Samantha Ordoñez, Terri Ann Driggs, Ralph Santos , Kaitlyn Wolf who also portrays Kathleen (maid to Mother), Nicole Spadaro and Paige Barrella. Each performer allows us to see the dreams and hope in their hearts even while dressed in rags, much in the same way my four grandparents and father must have looked when they arrived in America from Eastern Europe. When Tateh manages to create the beginnings of the motion picture industry and finally obtain the kind of success he always imagined for himself, Shupe shares his celebration in "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay" which attracts the attention of Mother to him, starting what will become their shared family life together.
The NEW ROCHELLE ensemble, dressed in white, represents the kind of life the other two groups wish they could obtain for themselves - a life of luxury in large homes away from the trials and tribulations of life on the streets of New York City. Amanda Greig leads this ensemble as Mother, a woman whose ideal life is turned upside down when she discovers a Negro baby abandoned in her garden, Carlos Gabriel Penaranda as wealthy, globe-trotting Father, Nick Ferguson as Mother's Younger Brother who searches for a purpose on life while chasing after Tina Hartell as Evelyn Nesbit, a Vaudeville star who became "the girl on the swing" after the "Trial of the Century" when her husband shot her lover, Jeffrey Kucera as Grandfather who allows life to frustrate him, Oliver Skye Earley Anderson and Vinny Mohr share the role of Edgar (Little Boy) whose outbursts foreshadow upcoming events, Jefferson Lanz as Henry Ford/Willie Conklin/Ensemble, Brian Pletcher as J.P. Morgan/Ensemble. Erin Hollander as Brigit/Ensemble, Michael Claridge as Charles S. Whitman/Ensemble, with Spencer Pletcher, Marilyn Hollander and Emilie Schwarz in the Ensemble.
As the musical's stories unfold and the ensembles intertwine, you will be blown away by the quality of all performers, fast pace of the direction, the range of time and class appropriate costumes by Taylor Moten, and the marvelously talented orchestra who plays continuously throughout the show, seated in front of the stage in full view of the audience. Rush to get your tickets as the remaining performances are bound to sell out.
RAGTIME runs from through December 4, 2016 with performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Reservations are recommended and may be made by calling the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center box office at (805) 583-7900 or online at the Arts Center website: www.simi-arts.org Tickets are $25 for adults, $22 for students/seniors 60 & above, and $18 for children 12 & under.
Photo credit Marion Brown