BWW Review: RAGTIME at Connecticut Theatre Company
It is always a thrill when you discover a hidden gem in your own backyard. This was the experience I had last night attending my first show by the Connecticut Theatre Company in New Britain, Connecticut. It is appropriate that my first review for this company would be for RAGTIME, the Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty musical (with book by Terrence McNally) that includes a variety of themes including a focus on new experiences, changes in perspective, and listening to "new music". I am thrilled to report that CTC's RAGTIME is a powerful and high-quality telling of the classic E.L. Doctorow tale. It hits all the right notes (literally and figuratively) and may be one of the best ensemble casts I have seen on a community theatre stage in Connecticut.
RAGTIME, for those unfamiliar with the musical, tells the stories of three main groups of people during the early part of the 20th century in New York. First, are the white, middle-class families that populate suburban New Rochelle and who enjoy the privileges that a comfortable lifestyle has to offer. Included in this group are the central family of the story, Mother (Erin Campbell), Father (Patrick Booth), Mother's Younger Brother (Zachary Taylor), Grandfather (Duane Campbell) and the Little Boy (Ben Stone-Zelman). Their story quickly intersects with two young, African-Americans - Sarah (Leondra Smith-West) and Ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Justin Henry). Add into the mix newly arrived immigrants Tateh (Doug McCarthy) and his Little Girl (Lexi White) and you have the primary anchors for the evening's tale. Throughout the musical additional figures from the period make appearances including Booker T. Washington (Garth West), Harry Houdini (Robert Melendez), Evelyn Nesbit (Kristen Scheuermann), Emma Goldman (Melissa Rostkoski), and J.P. Morgan (Jim Ryan), just to name a few. The audience experiences the world through the eyes of these people and themes including a long and unique courtship, finding one's purpose, and fighting the injustices that were frequent at that time.
As I mentioned in the opening, the cast of Connecticut Theatre Company displayed, collectively, extremely strong ensemble performances throughout the evening. I found myself getting excited every time the cast congregated on stage for I knew I was in for a marvelous wall of sound and a quality performance. And though, as a whole, the cast was all marvelous, there are a number of stand-out performances from the principal cast (though, unfortunately, too many to mention them all!). First, in a stellar take on the character of Mother, Erin Campbell displays a powerful voice and a simple charm. She illustrates well the character's evolution from accommodating wife to an empowered and independent woman in her own right and commands the stage whenever she is present. As her Younger Brother, Zachary Taylor provided a unique, but thrilling take on the young man searching for (and ultimately finding) his purpose. A recent graduate from the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York, Mr. Taylor was a real highlight of the evening for me and I look forward to seeing him in other roles in the future. Finally, as the star-crossed, yet fateful couple, Coalhouse and Sarah, Mr. Henry and Ms. Smith-West are a powerhouse (together and separately). Mr. Henry delivers each of Coalhouse's numbers effortlessly and is thoroughly believable in his torment and rage at the injustice done to him. Ms. Smith-West's Sarah is equally strong and her delivery of "Daddy's Son" is both heartbreaking and breathtaking.
In terms of the creative side of the production, Duane Campbell's direction is very good, especially considering the size of the cast and the complexity of the script and score. His direction of the large ensemble numbers and the more intimate scenes are equally good, and he utilizes the Repertory Theatre space quite well in his staging. Nathaniel Baker's musical direction is also strong, and he brings out polished, professional and thrilling performances from each singer. Kristen Norris' choreography works well including a particularly exciting (and surprising) tap number. Rose Masselli Morse has provided the cast with period-appropriate and exciting costumes and Michael J. Bane's technical direction (including the lighting design) sets the right mood and frames the evening appropriately.
Overall, RAGTIME, as presented by the Connecticut Theatre Company is a real gem. The story it tells couldn't be timlier and its message of resilience, love and compassion for others is an important lesson for all. The production is thrilling, touching, exciting and thought-provoking - all the things a great night of theatre should be. I am excited to have been able to experience CTC and its production of RAGTIME, and I look forward to what this talented group will offer next.
Connecticut Theatre Company is currently presenting RAGTIME through January 14 (Fridays & Saturdays at 7pm, Sundays at 2pm) at The Repertory Theatre, 23 Norden Street, New Britain, CT 06051. Tickets are available at the door or online at www.ConnecticutTheatreCompany.org