BWW Review: RAGTIME Plays a Pleasing Tune at Music Theatre Of Denton
During his career as a celebrated black piano player in the early 1900's, Scott Joplin said of his music, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast." For Joplin and many other musicians of the period, listening to ragtime meant embracing the music with patience and consideration, allowing the melodies to overwhelm you with the emotion of their story.
To get a sense of this experience, one only has to see Music Theatre of Denton's production of RAGTIME, playing through March 3 at Campus Theatre in downtown Denton.
Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name, the 1998 Broadway musical RAGTIME tells the story of three distinctly American families as they struggle to navigate through turbulent times at the dawn of the twentieth century. The white family of Father, Mother, and their immediate relations live a simple, upper-class life outside of New York City, but each member finds themselves wishing for something greater. Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and his beloved Sarah, two black residents of Harlem, dream of starting a family in a country that seems to block their path to freedom at every opportunity. The Jewish immigrant Tateh and his Little Girl come to New York with visions of success, only to nearly starve in the tenements on the lower East Side. Over the course of the musical, each of these families intersects with and changes one another in ways they could have never imagined. With a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, RAGTIME is now widely considered one of the most profoundly moving musicals of the last generation.
Directed by Eric B. Ryan, this production makes good use of some great local talent. Scott Bardin plays Father with an obstinate coolness that is contrasted well by his warm singing voice as well as by the comedic relief provided by Trey Balentine as his Little Boy. Jonathan Daniel Martin, as Mother's anarcho-activist Younger Brother, has a crisp tenor voice that brings a bright innocence to the character, though Martin's tendency to shout much of his lines in the second act does not always allow for much emotional depth. Despite Father's dominance in the household, Amanda Hart Bassett truly leads the family in her portrayal of Mother. Bassett perfectly modulates her stunning voice to convey every moment of Mother's complex journey from meek housewife to stalwart defender of the helpless and hopeless. Her triumphantly defiant rendition of the show's 11 o'clock number "Back to Before" had audiences cheering before she had even finished her final note.
Coalhouse Walker can be a character of extreme emotions, and Rodney M. Morris gracefully maneuvers between loving tenderness and righteous rage without the slightest hint of melodrama. Morris moves through his scenes with confidence and style, making it all too easy to believe why Mother and her family come to trust and adore him so readily. More so, Morris sings with such power and passion that Coalhouse's pain as a black man with a dream forever deferred becomes incredibly real in his solo numbers. Tatiana John - as Sarah, Coalhouse's fiancé and the mother of his child - comes close to matching this power in the lower registers of her soothing alto, and the couple's duet "The Wheels of a Dream" is one of the show's most emotionally stirring moments.
As the struggling immigrant Tateh, Anthony J. Ortega strikes a fine balance between playing the character with a humorous optimism as well as a heartfelt sincerity. The pain clearly registers on his face as he debates whether or not to send his Little Girl (acted beautifully by Sofia Guerra) on a train by herself for her own protection. If the show has any slow moments, they come when Tateh and his Little Girl are finally able to relax, and the audience is appreciative for this chance to see the two happy - however brief that happiness may be.
RAGTIME has one of the toughest scores in recent memory, and the remainder of the ensemble usually proves themselves up to the task of performing number after challenging number. Under the music direction of John Norine, Jr., the voices of the ensemble blend well together and provide exciting dynamics in group numbers such as "New Music" and "What a Game!" All of the performers bring a consistent level of energy and engagement in their scenes. Caitlin Jones and Kate Dressler give particularly memorable character performances as Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman, respectively, and Damara M. Williams deserves special recognition for her solo work in the moving Act I finale "Till We Reach that Day," giving voice to a pain felt across the generations.
As beautiful a tune as this production may play, there are moments when some notes come out scratchier than others. Set pieces needing to be moved on and offstage by crew members sometimes distracts from the action of a scene. On opening night, there were several occasions where singers failed to enter on time for parts of their songs, and the orchestra subsequently struggled to get on the same measure once the singer(s) did come in. Some of these mistakes may not have been noticed by audience members less familiar with the show, but nearly all could be fixed with some review.
By and large, Norine's vocalists and orchestra do the score justice, and the show's large principle cast have the strength and drive to move the musical along at such a brisk pace that the show's three-hour run-time seems shorter. What matters with a show like RAGTIME - and what matters with this production - is that its heartbreakingly beautiful (and heartbreakingly relevant) story is told with a boundless passion for what America can be.
I can't imagine a more pleasing tune.
Photo Credit: Michael Modecki