BWW Review: RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at Axelrod Performing Arts Center
It's hard to imagine a better location for a production of RAGTIME than Deal, New Jersey. The predominantly Jewish community is adjacent to the largely African American population of Asbury Park (a city known for "New Music") and connected by the millionaire mansions of Ocean Avenue: RAGTIME in microcosm. The Axelrod Performing Arts Center is not just presenting RAGTIME, but living it. The 1998 Tony-winning musical has also never seemed more timely, considering the nation's recent headlines about immigrants and dreamers.
Axelrod has lately billed itself as New Jersey's newest professional theatre. Toward that end, they have enlisted Broadway actor / director / choreographer, Luis Salgado. Salgado's Broadway credits include IN THE HEIGHTS, which he also staged for Axelrod last season. Salgado learned at the heels of HAMILTONians Tommy Kail, Andy Blankenbuehler, and, of course, Lin-Manuel Miranda. This season's production of RAGTIME exudes a HAMILTON-like energy. Salgado knows the secret to RAGTIME's success is its connectivity - and his brilliant mix of dance, drama, and visual composition is apparent in every scene. Salgado's staging features a few surprises that won't be divulged here, but that are creatively valid and won't perturb purists. Is this a revisionist RAGTIME? Not really. That mantle probably belongs to Stafford Arima's 2005 set-less staging at Paper Mill Playhouse. But this production resonates and is memorable in its own right.
Salgado's cast does not disappoint. They are a focused and tight group that is obviously wholly on-board with Salgado's staging and Terrence McNally's challenging libretto based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 historical novel. Iterating them singly would do a disservice to the ensemble nature of the piece. Musically, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's sprawling score has rarely sounded better. What's more, the large non-Equity cast seems to understand the show and their place in its storytelling. They act as a seamless whole and consistently deliver on Salgado's vision.
One only wishes that the Axelrod production team were as in sync as Salgado and his cast. The pen-like set is clunky and often upstages the stage pictures. The lighting is a jumble of ideas that often leaves actors in the dark. Costumes lack a coherent color palette or design, garbing actors in disparate elements from every period. Someone labored mightily on a projection design, but the stage lighting washes out nearly every image nullifying their effect. The designers desperately need to take a tip from Salgado's leadership and listen to the show's themes: unify and integrate. If Axelrod wants to fulfill its promise of New Jersey's newest professional theatre, they need to appeal to the eye as well as the soul.
Late in Act Two all elements miraculously coalesce in one singular moment that defines the show: "We Can Never Go Back To Before," a perfect storm of a song in a sea of conflict, beautifully rendered by Salgado, the designers, and performer Molly Samson (Mother). Despite the show's length, it is a moment well worth waiting for. The song, and the show itself, seem to tell us that in order to make America great again, we can only go forward and create "New Music".
RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL continues its run at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center, 100 Grant Avenue, Deal, New Jersey, through March 17. For tickets and information visit www.axelrodartscenter.com or call (732) 531-9106.