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Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis

Hustling, Bustling and Tussling

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis

When RAGTIME opened on Broadway almost 25 years ago it was meant to present (and perhaps even celebrate) a "can you believe how far we've come" ode to this great ongoing social experiment of cramming people of different ethnicities, races, and cultures into one big country called America.

It was supposed to be a reflection on the sins of our past while reveling in the potential of a glorious future. It was supposed to be. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, RAGTIME is set in New Rochelle, NY and serves as the microcosm for the representative experiences of a white, black, and Jewish immigrant family upon the dawning of the 20th century.

It's three distinct cultural experiences clashing together in ways that devastate, inspire, and still haunt even today. With a Tony Award winning score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (ANASTASIA, ONCE ON THIS ISLAND and SEUSICAL, THE MUSICAL), this mammoth of a musical seeks to fit a lot into a tight package without bursting at the seams. Entire musicals could be written about each of the individual characters introduced here--Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan.

Yet RAGTIME also seeks to detail the harrowing tales of immigrant struggles, class warfare and racial strife-all in one setting. It's a lot to take in. And with a running time of 3 hours (including intermission), Theatre Memphis does its best to keep it all straight, but, also like America itself, this production is sprawling, chaotic and hard to understand.

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis
Cast of Ragtime

Under the usually reliable direction and choreography of Jordan Nichols and Travis Bradley, this RAGTIME consistently lacks focus and tries to do too much all at once. While it might serve as an intentional metaphor for the hustling and bustling of a turn-of-the-century America, the staging is overflowing with stampeding people zigzagging up and down stairs, crossing narrow planks and almost slapping each other with awkward arm choreography.

When things become less frenzied, Nichols and Bradley periodically (not consistently or predictably) sit multiple actors on both sides of the stage coldly watching the action without explanation or context. Their presence and flat affect pull attention and often contradict the mood of the scene playing out in front of them. Adding to the distraction of having the occasional 10-12 observers onstage are the fourteen orchestra members sitting high above the action being conducted by a standing and broadly gesturing orchestra conductor. Mind you, plenty of musicals can work with onstage observers and visible orchestras, but such choices should be done in a way to enhance, not detract. Again, this show is a lot to take in.

While the scenic design by Jack Netzel-Yates is aesthetically sound, it doesn't elicit any clear or distinctive locales. With the challenge of having to convey everything from ships to train stations to baseball stadiums, keeping it less distinct makes sense, but still, the set doesn't evoke any real period or tone, rather it simply offers multiple levels with lots of stairs for way too many people to safely navigate.

Unfortunately, the lighting design by Mandy Kay Heath does little to help maintain focus either. The stage vacillates between being so broadly lit to include actors and/or musicians that aren't really part of any given scene or there are multiple large lights shining from upstage directly into the audience's eyes for extended periods of time detracting from what's trying to be observed. Oftentimes, audience members faces were just as broadly lit as the actors onstage.

The biggest disappointment of the night though must go to Nathan Greene's sound design. There's no doubt this cast is full of some of the finest singers and actors in town, but their talents and efforts are greatly diminished by an almost universally distorted and/or muffled microphone system. While the volume is sufficient, the clarity of words is practically nonexistent. Likewise, the balance between the orchestra and the singers is off and regularly overpowering. The talent onstage and the paying audience deserve better.

The only technical highlight of the show is Amie Eoff's costume, wig, hair, and make-up design. With such a large cast, Eoff is still able to provide clean, clear, and crisp designs. Each costume fits each actor like a glove and perfectly transforms the cast to a 1902 America. The design is distinctive, quickly identifiable and supports the actors in such a way as to clearly elevate their portrayals. Well done!

For all its technical challenges, RAGTIME still shines brightly when it comes to the onstage talent. The casting is strong, vibrant and supports each other in a way that almost overcomes the show's directorial miscues. The voices are melodic, the earnestness is real, and the passion is palpable. Regardless of the challenges depicted (a white mother missing her husband, a Jewish immigrant trying to build a new life or a Black man simply trying to cross a road), the requisite commitment is there, and the performances are top notch.

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis
Lauren Duckworth as Mother and Kevar Maffitt as Father

Kevar Maffit as Father nicely presents a man trying to provide for his family while being constantly challenged to accept an everchanging society that almost tears him apart. Lauren Duckworth as Mother sings like an angel and offers compassion and understanding to all she meets. Tracy Thomas' Emma Goldman is convincing as the Russian Jewish anarchist out to change the world. Cassie Thompson sparkles (again) as Evelyn Nesbit the "wheeeing" chorus girl in the middle of the "crime of the century" and Bill Andrews commands attention with his ever-accessible booming voice and uncanny resemblance to real-life financier, J.P. Morgan.

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis
John Maness as Tateh

In the role of Tateh, the Jewish immigrant trying to make it in America with his young daughter, John Maness presents a hopeful, vibrant and exuberant father whose fervor for success is infectious. Maness' creation of a dynamic and believable character includes many subtle and throwaway lines that are so often lost due to the atrocious microphone system that he might be better served by not using a mic at all.

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis
JD Willis as Younger Brother

JD Willis will make you sit up and take notice as Younger Brother fighting to right the wrongs of a racist world. He delivers it ardently as a young man whose ideals might be bigger than his reality, but still, he's a man you want to see win.

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis
Justin Allen Tate as Coalhouse

Justin Allen Tate has never been better on a Memphis stage as Coalhouse, the black musician with a dream to be respected as a man, citizen, and father. When he's run out of "cheeks to turn," Tate's character mobilizes a force that makes an impact, scares the hell out of the white man, but still falls short of changing bigoted hearts. His voice soars, his spirit is all encompassing, and his pain is unmistakable. He's everything you would ever want in a Coalhouse.

Review: RAGTIME at Theatre Memphis
Dawn Bradley as Sarah

In a performance not to be missed is Dawn Bradley as Sarah, the lover to Coalhouse and mother to his son. She perfectly plays it as a desperate parent struggling to do the right thing with a voice that will melt your heart. Her rendition of "Your Daddy's Son" followed by duets with Tate of "Wheels of a Dream" and "Sarah Brown Eyes" highlight just how it's supposed to be done. She could easily step into the role of Sarah in any national tour or Broadway company. Brava!

RAGTIME is a gargantuan production. It's epic in scope and expectations. Any community theatre attempting to find a way to match the scale and scope of Broadway or a national tour is in dangerous waters. There are just so many moving pieces involved that's it's easy to get lost. Theatre Memphis has proven in the past to have the talent on and off the stage to successfully mount such spectacles, but it requires leadership with steady hands and laser focus. When it comes to combustible topics like race, culture, economics and bigotry (delivered via song and dance), being overly ambitious can sometimes spell doom. Audiences do indeed have an appetite for big topics on big stages presented in big ways, but maybe not all at once. After all, RAGTIME's signature song, "Wheels of a Dream" references a car, not a bus.

Now through June 26, 2022

Photos by Carla McDonald


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