Seattle Review: Ragtime at Civic Light Opera
Ragtime is my favorite musical. It's a show I love and respect, and love even more when I see it done right. I had such high hopes walking into the Magnuson Park Recreation Center Theatre and seeing the beautifully designed unit set. The set (and the stage itself) is obviously much smaller than what would accomodate the proper 60-something person cast, so I was very excited to see a new take on the show.
Then the show started. While I highly promote new concepts for staging shows, and find many of them to shed new light on older material, I realized that you can't do that with Ragtime. This is a musical of epic proportions. Nothing about it is small, really. The ballads are big, the ensemble is big, the orchestra is big, the story is big. Or at least they're all supposed to be big. The show is written to be big, and diminishing it just doesn't work.
Ragtime concerns three groups of cultures, Jews, African-Americans, whites, in turn-of-the-century America, dealing with racism, classism, and economy. A white family is torn apart as Mother (Mariah Taylor) finds a newborn Negro baby buried in her garden while Father (Scott Polovitch-Davis) is away. She finds that the child is of one of her neighbor's slaves, Sarah (Marlette Buchanan), and a piano player, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ekello Harridd) Mother's Younger Brother (Nicolas Hoover) has decided to help Coalhouse and Emma Goldman (Kat Ramsburg) in his revolution towards equality for all. All the while, Tateh (Frank Kohel) and his daughter (Olivia Spokoiny) strive to make a life in their new home of America.
Besides the design elements, most of the performers, and a few orchestra members, the rest of this Ragtime is amateur. Simply from their posters and programs I feel like I'm at a high school show. But the real high school quality comes out in the poor staging by Ann Arends. A complete mess, the show is a conglomeration of random crosses, ugly clumps, poorly constructed pictures, and drill team moves. There is no rhyme or reason to much of the blocking, and there are even contradictions in them. Arends has Tateh retrieve his daughter from a runaway train (symbolized by a unit set of stairs stage left) and then sit down on the train which was supposed to chug away. And in the opening number, obviously trying to follow the original choreography, she has the three groups confronting one another. The only difference is that in Graciela Daniele's original lush staging the three groups are segregated at all times, while Arends has them all walking through one another freezing in random unintelligble and unimportant poses. This type of through-sung and plot-based show seems out of place with Arends, as she does fine with the single song-for-no-reason, "What A Game."
The cast has done their best working with the director, and some came off better than others. Frank Kohel is an endearing Tateh; he sings and acts the role with vigor. The audience builds their strongest connection with his rags-to-riches story and has an honestly caring relationship with him. He has a wonderful charisma with his daughter, Olivia Spokoiny, who seems to have made the rounds of the Seattle theatre scene. Ekello Harrid does just fine with his Coalhouse, though some of his acting moments are very misguided, which would probably be easily fixed by better direction. His voice, though, is simply stunning and had many in the audience awestruck. As Sarah, Marlette Buchanan posseses a strong enough voice, though she seemed flat at times, but was not pushed far enough acting-wise. As Mother, Mariah Taylor has the best voice on stage, and quite honestly, one of the best I've ever heard. Her milky sound simply engulfs this lush score and is quite thrilling. But she is also on the bandwagon of those who were not where they should have been in the acting department. Not a fault of the actors, but of the director. I saw choices being made on that stage, but it takes a diretor to bring those choices out. Scott Polovitch-Davis does fine as Father, though he seemed unsure of himself at times. Kimberly Suskind gives us a not-so-ditzy Evelyn Nesbitt, which is refreshing, but her costume is simply not attractive. Nicolas Hoover is too young-looking to play Younger Brother, but then again, most of the cast was too young for their parts. And one could only wish that we could see and hear more from Kat Ramsburg, who gives us a fiery portrayal of Emma Goldman.
A talented pianist, Mark Rabe does his best with his 6-person band to play what should be done by a 20-something orchestra. But no matter how talented Mr. Rabe is, there's not much "oomph" from a small band. This is one show that a full orchestra is desperately needed. Jennifer Zeyl's set utilizes a raked stage and a detailed wall upstage. Appropriately simple and very handsome, she's done the best she can to help create different areas of action for Arends to put her clutzy blocking on. Richard Shaefer's lighting design is acceptable but nothing special, but the visible light grid is very distracting for a period show like Ragtime. Carl Bronsdon's costumes are very attractive and does justice to the time period, though we could tell that a few shirts were from Target.
I may sound harsh, but it's only because I've seen what this show can truly do, and while the cast is talented, and there's great design support, this is one example where staging can really make or break a production.
-Ethan John Thompson