BWW Review: RAGTIME at Open Stage Of Harrisburg
Ragtime, based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, premiered in Toronto in 1996 before opening on Broadway in 1998. The musical, by Terrance McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Ahrens, tells the story of the United States in the early 20th century, focusing on the experiences and tensions that existed (and still exist) between different groups of people. In its original version, Ragtime was a huge production with a large cast and spectacular sets and effects. A scaled down version of Ragtime was created for smaller theatres and concert productions, with a focus on the story and the characters. Ragtime opened at Open Stage of Harrisburg on May 25th and, while those who first fell in love with the extravagance of the original version may be surprised by this stripped-down production, if the reaction of the audience at opening night was any indication, no one was disappointed.
The first aspect of the production the audience experiences is the set. At the opening of the show, we see a beautiful doll house, representative of the American dream. Aside from the doll house, against one wall are a set of crates and suitcases, and on two walls there are TV screens. The set is just right for this production, allowing the actors to make full use of the stage area and giving the audience the opportunity to truly focus on the action rather than the trimmings. The band, a combo of just three musicians, is also present on the stage the entire time. While the instrumental music was unfortunately sometimes too loud for the singing, these three musicians played the score masterfully.
The lighting design by Tristan Stasiulis and costumes by Hanniel Sindelar also deserve a round of applause. The lighting was intentionally designed to draw attention to certain parts of the stage, which assisted them in making seamless and quick scene changes without the audience even being aware of the shift. The costumes made it possible for the actors to become a new character in the blink of an eye. Many of the costume changes were subtle but, when paired with the changes the actors made in their speech, expression, posture, and so forth, were just enough to make it easy for the audience to keep track of who was who at any particular time during the performance.
The show is well-cast, packing a great deal of talent into a small space. From the opening number, the superb staging and acting is highlighted. The movement used in the opening number emphasizes the tensions that existed between the different groups represented on stage that is the backdrop for the entire show.
Jonathan Hoover and Gretchen Sutton are the youngest actors on stage, portraying Little Boy and Little Girl. Hoover was unfortunately difficult to understand at times, probably as a result of opening night nerves, but his presence on stage is very good, and I was impressed by the way he interacts with the characters Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and Coalhouse. Sutton has few lines, but the way she relates with the character Tateh, her character's father, is authentic and sincere-they really seem like father and daughter. She uses her body language and facial expressions extremely well in the role, saying volumes about her character's emotions and state of mind without even saying a word. Both of these young actors are particularly entrancing in the scenes they have together, including their first meeting in Act 1.
Most of the other actors play multiple roles, which they manage with an ease that demonstrates their incredible talent. Tyquan Reddick and Stiles Colbert morph into several different characters throughout the show. Every time they take the stage, their energy is palpable and infuses every part of their characters, including posture, movements, and facial expressions. In their final scenes with Coalhouse, they portray an intensity that is perfect for the scene and almost exhausting to watch.
Georgianna Hicks is hilarious as Evelyn Nesbit. She gives the character just the right amount of attitude, and every time she takes the stage as Nesbit, the audience looks forward to hearing what she'll say next. Nesbit is quite a contrast to the other roles Hicks plays in the show, and she handles the transition from character to character well. One of the most astonishing aspects of her performance is her ability to hit extraordinarily high notes consistently well. While the character of Evelyn Nesbit provides us with some comic relief, the character of Sarah, played by Pilisa Mackey, is a tragic character. Mackey's acting is beautiful, taking the audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotions. I had difficulty understanding her words in her solo songs, which is a shame because her voice itself as a lovely tone. Fortunately, her duets with the character Coalhouse did not have the same issues with diction, and their performance in "Wheels of a Dream" was one of my favorite parts of the show.
TJ Creedon, Benny Benamati, and David Payne portray some of the most recognizable characters in the show-Houdini and J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington. While I wasn't as convinced by his portrayal of Houdini, Creedon is very effective as the high-brow wealthy J.P. Morgan, particularly in the song "Success". Benamati's Ford has great presence on stage, but Goldman is the character that really displays Benamati's incredible acting. The passion and fervor with which Benamati plays Goldman is intense and inspiring-it felt like the whole audience was ready to stand up in support of Goldman's speeches. Payne portrays not only Booker T. Washington, but also Grandfather and others. It is his work in the role of Booker T. Washington, though, that really captures the audience's attention. He approaches the character with intellect and gravitas, and his beautiful voice shines through in "Look What You've Done".
The intimate nature of the performance at Open Stage really brings to light the complicated family dynamics between Father, Mother, and Younger Brother. Brad Barkdoll brings Father to life on the stage. It is a complex role, and Barkdoll holds in tension the character's desire to see things stay the same with his love for his family. The audience may experience extreme dislike for Father while also feeling sorry for him, and it is Barkdoll's ability to maintain and portray the character's complex emotions that makes this possible. Sean Meara is a highlight of this performance of Ragtime. At the beginning of the show, he gives us a naïve love-struck young man hungry for adventure. As the show progresses, his character matures and provides a contrast to Father, who is stuck in the past. Meara is compelling as Younger Brother, bringing the audience along on his character's journey. Add to his acting ability his beautiful, clear voice, and Younger Brother easily became one of my favorite characters in the show.
The three "main" characters in the show, Mother, Tateh, and Coalhouse Walker, Jr., are taken on by Stacey Werner, Stuart Landon, and Jimmy Oronoz. Stacey Werner is the picture of a strong, independent woman. Mother is not willing to compromise her values even when her husband disagrees with her. Werner's stage presence and emotional range work well for this role, and she is able to infuse her voice with emotion while maintaining a full, clear tone. While she has a number of incredible songs, it's her performance with Stuart Landon's Tateh in "Our Children" that really gave me chills and is perhaps one of Mother's most touching scenes. Tateh is a wonderful role for Stuart Landon. He goes from hopeful to fearful to angry to joyful, and every emotion that Tateh experiences is portrayed with sincerity by Landon. Throughout the show, I found Tateh to be one of the most believable characters, which is really saying something because all of the characters were so well acted. On a stage filled with incredible voices, Jimmy Oronoz's voice is extraordinary. The role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. requires a wide vocal range as well as vocal agility and accuracy, and Oronoz gives us all of that and more. There were numerous times when his voice literally gave me goosebumps. Coalhouse is also an intense role when it comes to acting, as he experiences hope, loss, and injustice. Oronoz is definitely up for this challenge.
Ragtime is an astonishing show on a number of levels-memorable music, well-written characters, and a story that resonates as we look at America's past and present. The production of Ragtime at Open Stage refuses to let the audience ignore the tough themes in the show. The audience is confronted, in a very intimate way, with the emotions of the characters as well as their own emotions and struggles in this country that we call home.
Be ready to open your minds and hearts to being greatly impacted by this production and get your tickets before it's too late. Visit openstagehbg.com for your tickets today!