BWW Review: Resplendent RAGTIME Brings Elite Syncopations to Providence Performing Arts Center

BWW Review: Resplendent RAGTIME Brings Elite Syncopations to Providence Performing Arts Center

Rhode Island audiences, prepare to be dazzled. Ragtime is one of the most highly acclaimed musicals of the last two decades and the touring production now playing the Providence Performing Arts Center does the show's rich legacy proud.

At the turn of the twentieth century, America stood on the cusp of great cultural change. While industrial growth literally and figuratively altered the landscape of the United States, labor rights activists clashed with exploitative business moguls, African-American leaders sought equality through the founding of the NAACP, immigrants arrived on American shores in numbers never before witnessed, and women rapidly saw their social roles redefined as suffrage grew ever closer to reality. The syncopated sounds of ragtime music underscored it all and became the soundtrack for the aptly titled "Progressive Era."

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally, chronicles these times through representative members of three separate groups: the well-to-do elite of New Rochelle, the African-American community of Harlem, and the European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' sweeping musical numbers punctuate Ragtime's narrative as the characters' clearly delineated social spheres break down and individuals begin to interact in unanticipated, life-changing ways.

The touring company of Ragtime is committed to telling this story with the vitality and respect it demands. Everything about this production is of the finest quality, from the gorgeous period costumes by Gail Baldoni to Kevin Depinet's spare-yet-versatile props and sets. Mike Baldassari's lighting design deftly illuminates the New Rochelle residents' reminiscences: "The days were gently tinted/Lavender, pink, lemon, and lime." Marcia Milgrom Dodge's smart choreography and direction both streamline the heavy exposition of act one and guide the quick-fire developments of the second act.

Most especially, this tour boasts an absolutely first-class company of performers. The cast is simply brimming with talent and every actor, from principal player to ensemble member, excels in song, expression, and storytelling.

Chris Sams heads that cast and delivers a knockout performance as ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. The richness and sheer power of Sams' vocal performances are second to none. He brings Coalhouse's character to life with absolute integrity and dignity, and the genuineness of his emotions - from buoyant idealism to bone-deep grief and terrifying rage - reads through to the back rows of the theater.

Leslie Jackson inhabits the role of Sarah, Coalhouse's lady love, down to her fingertips. Sarah's sorrow is palpable during Jackson's wonderful rendition of "Your Daddy's Son," then later, her sweet, vibrant spirit filters through like sunshine as her heart begins to mend. Jackson and Sams bring down the house in their scenes together, and their excellent duets - "The Wheels of a Dream" and "Sarah Brown Eyes" - are outright showstoppers.

Matthew Curiano tugs heartstrings as the Latvian-Jewish immigrant, Tateh. He develops Tateh's sweetness and easy good humor as integral elements of his character, but grounds his portrayal first and foremost in one of his earliest lines: "The little girl was all he had now." Tateh's role as devoted father serves as the basis for his each and every action, even when his fortunes change for the better, and Curiano fully conveys the depths of paternal dedication and sacrifice. Curiano makes "Gliding" a sweet, defining moment in the first act and "Our Children," Tateh's second-act duet with Mother, is all the more poignant for his character's journey.

Mother's own transformation is masterfully managed by Kate Turner. She takes Mother from a sheltered society wife, reliant on on her husband for direction in even the most mundane decisions, to a confident, independent thinker. Mother in many ways typifies the changing dynamics for women during the early part of the century, and Turner's heartfelt vocal performance expresses Mother's struggles and realizations in songs like "What Kind of Woman?" and "Back to Before."

Donald Coggin knocks Younger Brother's most comical scenes out of the park, but he also convincingly taps into the fire and idealism that fuel the young man's worldview. The second-act number "He Wanted to Say" gives Coggin the opportunity to show off both the humor and the zealousness of Younger Brother's temperament.

Father embarks on an expedition to the North Pole but only finds a new perspective when he returns home, and Troy Bruchwalski allows this character the time he needs to develop his humanity. Colin Myers gives a spot on performance as the Little Boy, his good-natured precociousness and sunny stage presence often stealing the limelight from the adults.

To further establish the historical moment, Ragtime weaves several real-life figures into its narrative. In this group, Sandy Zwier brings fiery appeal to the anarchist Emma Goldman and Jeffrey Johnson II lends stately nobility to his turn as scholar and activist Booker T. Washington. Mark Alpert's Harry Houdini appears only briefly, but Alpert displays all the charm and charisma of the enigmatic illusionist.

Though Ragtime's storyline unfolds more than a century in the past, its key themes and issues are unquestionably still relevant in twenty-first century America with immigration reform, simmering racial tensions, and acts of terrorism flooding news reports every day. Ragtime is undoubtedly an excellent work with elegant, memorable music, but the threads of reality at its core are what create a deeper and more resonant impact with an audience after the curtain falls.

Ragtime plays a limited run at the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, April 10, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.ppacri.org, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Individual ticket prices start at $52 and group orders (15 or more) may be placed by calling (401) 574-3162.

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Pictured: Leslie Jackson as Sarah and Chris Sams as Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
Photo by Scott Suchman

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