BWW Review: Garden Theatre's RAGTIME Is Something Special
Maybe it's the allure of seeing a show called RAGTIME just off of a historic small-town American main street, maybe it's the bigger budget that season openers sometimes get, or maybe it's the arrival of incoming artistic director Joseph C. Walsh, but Garden Theatre's new production of RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL is something special.
RAGTIME is the show that swept the Tony nominations in 1998 but lost to The Lion King. Its lone revival on Broadway lasted less than two months, but its legacy lives on in regional theatre, where it has settled in as a staple. (In Central Florida alone, we've had a half-dozen productions in the last seven years or so, with another on the way at Sanford's Theater West End later this season.)
The libretto is ambitious. RAGTIME tells the intersecting stories of three families in New York at the turn of the 20th century: one white and aristocratic in the upper-class neighborhoods of New Rochelle, one black and battling racism in Harlem, and one a father-daughter duo of Latvian Jewish immigrants struggling to make ends meet in the tenements of the Lower East Side.
As their lives crisscross in twists and scandals, they dovetail with the titans of their era: J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and more - all while the show digs deep into big issues like culture, class, justice, gender, racism, identity, and labor policy.
You can tell that RAGTIME was a novel before it became a musical. There's probably more going on here than a two-act play should try for. But improbably, it works.
We might think of the three families' narratives as three notes in a chord; it is their combination that makes them effective. The show uses music as a metaphor for change in America. The lyrics liken ragtime - "strange new music," they call it - to a cultural shift: "changing the tune, changing the time." Songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens ponder the power of music to inspire change on the one hand and to reflect change on the other. And so the syncopated rhythm of ragtime becomes a narrative device that drives the story forward while also working as a metaphor for the uneven march of justice. (We might say that progress, in RAGTIME's view, tends to "skip a beat.")
But the book doesn't settle for just those three viewpoints (already enough to drive a play on their own). Rather, within each family and sect, we find at least two competing perspectives. In New Rochelle, the prejudiced Father's views are at odds with the relatively more progressive views of Mother and Brother - and even those two don't see eye to eye. In Harlem, Coalhouse comes to reject his idol Booker T. Washington's counsel of "friendship between the races." And on the Lower East Side, Tateh's unwavering optimism for America runs counter to Emma Goldman's impassioned rally against the status quo.
These competing perspectives - melodies and countermelodies, if you will - lend a welcome air of complexity to the show. It has the heft of literature and the texture of a tapestry, with nimble lyrics and a gorgeous score.
For RAGTIME, director Mark Edward Smith and his crew have crafted one of the most appealing and stately sets I've seen at the Garden Theatre. The blocking is clever and thoughtful - important when you have a big ensemble cast on a small stage - and the lighting and costumes are on point. The vaudeville era must be the Garden's charm, because this is certainly the best staging I've seen here since the last season opener, Gypsy.
Whether you've seen RAGTIME or not, it's the cast here that is really going to wow you. The Garden threw out a wide net this time, bringing in plenty of new-to-Plant Street performers, who together comprise a cast that could step onto a Broadway stage tonight and earn rave reviews. Compare them to the 1998 cast recording and you just might find that you favor the voices here, which are big and full and emotive.
Amy Sue Hardy, who you might remember as part of 90s girl group Nobody's Angel or from her various appearances on Disney television over the years, sets the bar high early on in her role as Mother. Brandon Martin, instantly recognizable in these parts as one of Epcot's Voices of Liberty, steps into the role of Coalhouse Walker Jr. and reminds us that each of the Voices of Liberty should be starring on a stage somewhere every single night. And Michael Ursua plays Tateh with wide-eyed optimism and confidence. All three of them sing beautifully.
Supporting turns from David Lowe as Father, John Pelkey as Grandfather/Henry Ford, Russell Stephens as Younger Brother, Joe Adams as Booker T. Washington, Dayja Le'Chelle Legg as Sarah, and Janine Papin as Emma Goldman consistently impress with their strong and authentic acting. Tricia Jane Wiles capably eases the dramatic tension as the freewheeling (and freely "Whee!"-ing) Evelyn Nesbit, and Netflix/Nickelodeon star Zachary S. Williams stands out in the ensemble as the actor and singer you want to hear more from. Rounding out the ensemble are Adam DelMedico, Jade Jones, CJ Roche, Scarlett Rose Russo, and Jasmine Travick - impressive all. At the performance I attended, Roman Patrick delivered an adorable turn as Coalhouse Walker III (a role he shares with Evan Thomas, who was not on stage during this particular performance) and young Aidan Bangsund capably held his own in a featured role as New Rochelle's The Little Boy.
For the first time since I've been reviewing shows here, the Garden Theatre has live musicians on stage - pianists Robby Stamper and Julian Bond - and it adds immeasurably to the experience. While this is not the full-blown orchestra you would have found on Broadway, it is unquestionably preferable to piped-in, pre-recorded music, and I sincerely hope we see more of the same under Joseph C. Walt's guidance this season. RAGTIME is as much a show about music as it is a show about history or humanity. I don't think this production would have worked quite so well without live music, especially from pianists who are visible on stage.
As it is, this take on RAGTIME is one of the best productions of any show I've seen on any local stage. It runs through September 22 (extended from September 15). Don't miss it.
What did you think of RAGTIME at Garden Theatre? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photos by Bagwell Photography, courtesy of Garden Theatre