BWW Review: Musical Theatre West Revisits the Epic RAGTIME in Grand Splendor
Admittedly, RAGTIME---the Tony Award-winning 1998 Broadway musical featuring a book by Terrence McNally and a memorable musical score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty---remains, to this day, my favorite stage musical of all time. It's probably safe to assume that I may have favorable feelings toward it right from the start. However, not all productions of this show, such as life itself, can necessarily be predicted to be either good, bad, or just okay.
The show itself, at its basic core, is filled with gorgeous, lush music, poignant and poetic lyrics, larger-than-life historic figures intermixed with ambitiously crafted fictional period archetypes, and, of course, deeply resonating themes that touch on social justice, race relations, and the very American idea of aspirational yearning. To put it simply, this incredibly powerful musical usually hits all the right emotional highs and lows for me personally, and similarly to the many who experience it... when a production of it is done extremely well.
So, naturally, any and all productions that pop up nearby will automatically garner my attention.
The show, not surprisingly, seems to be experiencing a sort of renewed resurgence lately, perhaps inspired by the current times we live in---where this musical's seemingly distant 1906 ideologies, struggles, and experiences are still eerily relevant in 2020. Recent admirable reimagined productions at Anaheim's Chance Theater and at The Pasadena Playhouse both also prove that experimenting with the show's scope, visual designs, and staging can produce great, emotionally-searing results, too.
But, personally for myself, I do still hold a soft spot for productions of RAGTIME that adhere closer to its traditionalist roots, which blends heart-piercing music and drama with grandiose exhibition and staging. As someone with a fondness for the original---which admittedly shook me to my very soul---seeing the show revived in a similar fashion always triggers a special place in my heart.
The latest notable Southern California theater company to revisit this epic-sized musical---based on E.L. Doctorow's own massive tome of the same name---is Musical Theatre West in Long Beach, whose first ever production of this show was mounted back in 2005. I was actually in the audience of that very production and was thoroughly impressed and visibly moved by what I experienced.
Fifteen years later, MTW revisits RAGTIME for only its second time---smartly reviving the musical in a similarly lavish production that beautifully converges the show's classic staging and vibe with wonderfully integrated 21st Century tech upgrades that help elevate the material rather than hinder its storytelling. Under the enlightened direction of Paul David Bryant (who also provides the production's high-energy choreography), this brand new, spectacularly engrossing production bellows with an emotional fervor and is one of my favorite iterations of this musical I have seen in recent years.
How do I know MTW's production---which continues performances at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach through February 23, 2020 ---is done well?
Right from the start, during the expansive opening prologue---which is still my favorite opening number of any show followed closely by the opening number of HAMILTON---I found myself instantly captivated... and inexplicably overwhelmed to the point that I started to tear up a little bit, all while we are introduced one-by-one to the myriad of characters and personalities that populated this volatile yet hopeful "era exploding" that is turn-of-the-century America.
At the intersection of increasing social and racial divisiveness, we also see the rise of wealth and prosperity for a few "at the top" brought on by advances in industry and innovation. Meanwhile as racism against African-Americans and other people of color increase, we also see an influx of so many Eastern Europeans fleeing the poverty and despair of their native lands to start new lives in a country that promises prosperity and hope, even though they don't realize some are more likely not to get it over others.
As these layered themes and narratives progress, the audience is also presented with one spectacular musical performance after another by a cohesive cast of wonderfully gifted actor/singers---and every single one providing a fully-realized portrait that keeps us engrossed in the stories. The fascinating, somewhat seamless zig-zag from one vignette to another then back again is almost ingeniously mapped out, in my opinion.
By the time we get to the searingly emotional gut-punch that is this production's Act 1 closer, I am full-on ugly-crying in my seat, completely invested in these characters' lives. Never mind that the first act of this epic musical is about as long as a single musical itself---there is just so much good storytelling and song to absorb here that you forget that you probably needed to go run to the restroom after that entire bottle of water you just gulped down minutes into the show.
While most viewers may (and, perhaps, still) complain that the musical just has too many characters and stories criss-crossing to properly provide enough character development for everyone, I wholly disagree. I consider some periphery characters simply as that... on the periphery, appearing for the sole purpose of serving the true focus of the musical: the three main protagonists whose lives are affected by their connections and the environment that exists around them in 1906 New York.
As befitting its overall splendor of production values, MTW's local revival of RAGTIME is a feast for the senses.
Working in total harmony to produce its vintage-flavored visual impact are Kevin Depinet's scenic designs, Paul Black's intuitive lighting, and Kevan Loney's top-notch, eye-popping projection designs---the latter of which feels like an easy go-to trick nowadays for other shows, but here looks stunning and cohesively compatible. I was particularly awe-struck by the projections depicting the arrival of immigrants into Ellis Island, where first they are met with a view of the Statue of Liberty in the distance followed by entering inside the port building lined with skylights. The visual recreation of their first entrance into the New World reminds us just how different non-European immigrants are treated when they enter these days.
The production design team's work also acts as a lovely canvas to showcase Dylan Powell's props and the show's gorgeous period costumes, all coordinated by Tamara Becker and with Michon Gruber-Gonzales providing wig designs.
As for what you'll hear, the Ahrens-Flaherty songbook featured in the musical sounds exquisitely lush under the direction of musical director Brian P. Kennedy which all pairs well with this excellent cast's vocal work. And, let me tell you, there is a not a weak link in the bunch, making this RAGTIME even more pleasurable to see and hear.
Thanks to the opening prologue, we get to meet the principal cast---and, of course, their respective characters---one at a time, one right after another in glorious, self-proclaimed fashion.
Like people stepping out of a vintage photograph come to life, up first is a "very well-off," upper middle class Caucasian family that lives in New Rochelle, New York led by "Father" (Michael Scott Harris), a social traditionalist and amateur adventurer whose livelihood is derived from the sale and manufacturing of patriotic decor. His family includes his wife, the more open-minded and worldly curious "Mother" (the excellent Jessica Bernard); Mother's aimless "Younger Brother" (Matthew Malecki) who enjoys explosives; their aging, now-retired cantankerous "Grandfather" (Barry Pearl); and Mother and Father's young inquisitive son Edgar (Malakai Basile) who seems to have an uncontrollable knack for spilling secrets and for somehow having inexplicable visions of future events.
Life for the white citizens of the tree-lined streets of the suburbs is, as one might expect, relatively pleasant, predictable, and content---particularly because their little sheltered bubble of existence requires little to no interactions with either blacks, immigrants, or the excessively poor---that is, unless you count "the hired help."
But just like the brand spanking "new music" called Ragtime is quickly entrancing everyone---regardless of race, gender, or age---America at the turn-of-the-century is changing rapidly, and the intermixing of various people are soon proving to be unavoidable.
Further into New York City is the artistic haven of Harlem, where we meet talented musician Colehouse Walker Jr. (the riveting Terron Brooks) and his lady-love Sarah (the extraordinary Brittany Anderson), whose fragile relationship causes her to run away to New Rochelle with a tiny but significant secret. Aside from their rocky courtship, they---along with other people of color in general---must also deal with the everyday ugliness and dangers of an openly racist society, who will always look at them as less than worthy.
Meanwhile, the possibility of prosperity in America influences a continuous influx of poor and destitute immigrants to be welcomed to our shores, mostly from various Eastern European nations, all hoping for better lives and a shot at the so-called American Dream. Among the new arrivals is Tateh (the incredible Gary Patent), a Latvian Jew who has arrived with his very young daughter (Maya Somers) tied to him by rope so he won't lose her. Somehow he thinks his, uh, seemingly useless talent for cutting up artistic silhouettes is his route to prosperity. Their harrowing journey, as is the norm for new immigrants without money or property, is often debilitated by poverty, hopelessness, despair, and, yes, even a bit of discrimination.
In between these fictional characters' stories of heartache, triumph, hardship, and perseverance, a cavalcade of real-life historical figures often cross paths with them, including celebrated vaudeville performer---and former headline-grabbing scandalous personality---Evelyn Nesbit (the cheeky Monica Ricketts); celebrity illusionist/escape artist and immigrant success story Harry Houdini (Lance Galgon); radical pro-immigrant, anti-capitalist anarchist Emma Goldman (the excellent Hannah Rose Kidwell); and non-violent civil rights advocate Booker T. Washington (Dedrick Bonner). Shown as examples of successful (white) people who made significant strides during the era is car-maker/assembly-line instigator Henry Ford (David Kirk Grant), a man who made his fortune from the sweat of factory workers and the affordability of his Model T motor cars for the growing middle class, and J.P. Morgan (Bryan Dobson), who at the time was known as one of the wealthiest men on Earth.
What connects all these divergent cultural groups together is, of course, the popular new genre of music called Ragtime---noted for its syncopated rhythms and its uplifting, sometimes jaunty sound that is all at once joyful and melancholy, reiterating the very mood of the nation. But its most surprising aspect is that its enjoyment seems to transcend musical preferences regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity.
And much like the enchanting power that these lush musical themes have over its characters, it also overpowers the entire musical itself, gifting the audience with memorable musical motifs and gloriously stirring anthems that seamlessly transition from one anthemic song to another, as if the entire score is one continuous, lavish suite of unending music. Though some songs in the show do feel like filler after-thought tracks---"What A Game" is a fun, stand-alone number, but completely interrupts the narrative flow, while "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc." is unnecessary, silly padding---the majority of the musical's songs is essentially an ingenious, collective masterwork from Ahrens and Flaherty.
Many of the show's highlights do involve the musical performances, and this cast tasked to perform them is just outstanding. The opening number, again, is spectacularly performed. Bernard's vulnerable yet sturdy vocals on her solo turns in "Goodbye, My Love" and her lovely 11 o'clock number "Back to Before" warmed my heart. Anderson's stunning work on the heartbreaking "Your Daddy's Son" (which had me weeping) and in her duet with Brooks on "Wheels of A Dream" gave me goosebumps in its emotional power. For his own part, Brooks shines with every number he sings, including the vibrant "Getting Ready Rag," "New Music," his second act Soliloquy, and, of course, his penultimate anthem "Make Them Hear You." His sweet but melancholy duet with Anderson on "Sarah Brown Eyes" drips with heartbreak.
Especially impressive is Patent, who reprises the role of Tateh here that he also beautifully rendered in 3-D Theatricals' production of RAGTIME back in 2014. His performance is even better and more vivid here, expressed with deeply-felt anguish and desperation, and his vocal work on "Gliding" and his touching duets with Bernard on "Nothing Like the City" and, later, in the endearing "Our Children" offer audiences moments to pause for a smile or two.
Other cast standouts include Summer Greer, whose brief role as Sarah's friend makes a gargantuan impact with her exceptional solo work on "Til We Reach That Day," the show's powerful first act closer that reduced me to a crying mess. Also worth noting are Ricketts, with her whimsical turns as Ms. Nesbitt; Kidwell's vocal contributions in many songs including "He Wanted To Say," and Malecki's strong, belt-tastic tenor in "New Music," and "He Wanted To Say."
The entire ensemble---as appropriately and beautifully diverse as the people they are portraying---is truly impressive, especially when singing and dancing as a collective, something that this epic musical truly requires.
With themes that still achingly reverberate in our current America, RAGTIME is too important a show not to experience live on stage. Even now in my umpteenth time seeing the show, I still even catch things I never thought about before... like the fact that the character of Tateh, an immigrant who struggled to make a life for himself in this new country somehow (SPOILER ALERT) found success---surprisingly quick---many years later. Was his path to success an easier one because he is caucasian? Would an immigrant of color have such similar ease today, let along back in 1906?
That said, MTW's exemplary, remarkably opulent production is a worthy entry in this musical's regional iterations, particularly in its laudable ability to present all of this dense show's multi-layered elements in an exemplary way---from its dazzling, period-appropriate sets and projections and ornate costumes, to its sweeping, ear-candy orchestral arrangements, seamless stage transitions, and, most importantly, the strength and talent of its principal leads. If you have yet to see the show, now is the time to experience it---in a version that honors the original staging yet enhances it with welcome tech upgrades.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Musical Theatre West's production of RAGTIME - THE MUSICAL continues through Sunday, February 23, 2020 at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts, located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.