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BWW Review: RAGTIME at Dallas Summer Musicals

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Walking into the Music Hall at Fair Park Tuesday night, I was extremely eager to enjoy Ahrens and Flaherty's lavish, Tony Award-winning score in the tour of RAGTIME. Together with Terrence McNally's dynamic script, RAGTIME is celebrated as perhaps one of the greatest book musicals of the past two decades. Unfortunately, in spite of all of its inherent strengths, technical troubles plagued the tour's opening night performance. I left the theatre completely disappointed.

RAGTIME is based on the 1975 novel of the same name written by E.L. Doctorow. The show is set in New York in the early 1900's, and revolves around the story of three contrasting social groups: the immigrants of the Lower East Side, the African Americans of Harlem, and the upper-class white folk of New Rochelle. Although the plot is somewhat character-heavy and, therefore, occasionally complicated, the main story revolves around Coalhouse Walker Jr., a young black man who takes a stand against a racist, white America. Coalhouse has a connection to the well-to-do white family, as the mother of his child (Sarah) finds herself being taken care of by them. When the white family meets a family of Eastern European immigrants on the train, the story takes turns following the three groupings, displaying the diversity of the melting pot of early America, as well as the opportunity and struggles of various groups during this period in our history.

At Dallas Summer Musicals' opening night of the tour, sound problems made much of the evening completely inaudible. In fact, the lengthy opening number was so full of static, I was certain the production would pause the show to address the issue. Unfortunately, this was not addressed, and extended static waves, inconsistent microphone volumes, and a misplaced balance between the band and the prerecorded orchestra dampened the remainder of the show. In several instances, the audio of the background tracks was the only sound coming through the speakers, leaving the actors entirely impossible to hear for several minutes at a time. In my 30 years of attending theatre of various levels, the RAGTIME tour was by far the most distracting and unfortunate. No public school sound system, in my experience, has even been of poorer quality.

It's important to note that I am inclined to blame these sound issues solely on the touring company, and not on the DSM staff or venue. Although the Music Hall has a reputation for some sound troubles, this instance was unlike any acoustical issues which they have previously been criticized for. Though I am personally unaware of the specific behind-the-scenes situation for RAGTIME, it is general practice for a touring company to utilize their own sound engineer, microphones and technology.

With all of that being said, it's challenging to fairly report on the skill of the hard-working cast. While many of the principal characters seemed to appropriately portray their roles, few were able to rise above the technical disruptions. Still, Leslie Jackson (Sarah) and Aneesha Folds (Sarah's Friend) excelled in delivering emotional and exceptional performances. Ms. Jackson's voice soared on "Your Daddy's Son" and "Sarah Brown Eyes," and Ms. Folds brought the house down with her moving performance in "Till We Reach That Day." Similarly, Jordan Santiago (The Little Boy), Donald Coggin (Mother's Younger Brother), Sandy Zwier (Emma Goldman), and Jillian Van Neil (Evelyn Nesbit) all managed to deliver charming and memorable portrayals through the static. I also must mention the brief cameo of DFW's James Hayes as Young Coalhouse (who alternates the role with Anthony Taylor) which was absolutely adorable.

On the other hand, one leading player's performance seemed inconsistent with the authors' intentions. As Coalhouse Walker Jr, Chris Sams lacked an emotional arc, starting the show jaded, bitter, and aggressive before his character even begins to face his challenges. Although the audience seemed compassionate of Coalhouse's frustrations as he is overcome by a broken system, Mr. Sams also lacked charm and passion, anger aside.

With such a compelling story and dynamic musical score, it's a shame that DFW audiences may not be able to fully appreciate the show during this touring engagement. Should sound issues continue to disturb the production, perhaps the old adage of "the show much go on" can be overlooked in favor of making the appropriate adjustments to best represent the material.

I'm generally shy on discouraging theatre enthusiasts to avoid a production, but RAGTIME ticket buyers should be aware that this particular event is a risk that may or may not be worth taking. For those willing to chance it, the show runs through June 5th at The Music Hall at Fair Park. Tickets and more information are available at www.DallasSummerMusicals.org.


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From This Author Kyle Christopher West