BWW Review: Trinity Rep's Season Closes with Resounding RAGTIME
Trinity Repertory Company (TRC) punctuates the conclusion of its 2017-18 performance calendar with a definite exclamation mark. Ragtime, now playing at TRC's upstairs Chace Theater, is a season's best production both for the company and for the arts community statewide. The story and songs of this deeply profound musical have impacted audiences across the globe for more than two decades, and Trinity's superb cast, under the skillful direction of Curt Columbus, does the material full justice, delivering Rhode Island's must-see performance of the year.
Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, and Lynn Aherns adapted E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel for the stage in brilliant fashion, with gorgeous musical numbers underscoring a truly compelling narrative. The story resonates with universal appeal and is guaranteed to touch audience members' every emotion. Attempting to neatly sum up Ragtime's plot, however, proves a more difficult prospect. Certainly, the narrative's major themes -- race relations, immigration, workers' rights -- spring most immediately to mind, but Ragtime encompasses so much more of life's essential experiences and concerns.
Ragtime touches on a myriad of subjects and themes: enduring indignation at social injustices, the impact of small kindnesses between strangers, the relentless and invasive influence of celebrity culture, the gentle comfort of commonplace household routines, and the spirit's ability to dream of a brighter tomorrow while bearing the harsh realities of today, to name only a few. Ragtime opens in 1906 and unfolds under the looming shadow of World War I, but the characters portrayed in its scenes speak to who we were -- and who we still are -- as a society in an incisive and eloquent manner.
Ragtime traces the lives of three distinct populations residing in turn-of-the-century New York: the householders of a prestigious white neighborhood, enjoying the waning days of Gilded Age elegance and privilege; the African-American community in Harlem, finding its voice through the ragtime music that swept the nation; and the immigrant peoples entering Ellis Island, experiencing censure and poverty in what they had hoped would be a golden land of opportunity.
Most productions of Ragtime open with these three groups clearly separated by visual cues (costuming, lighting, blocking, etc.), only to blend together as the plot progresses, but Trinity takes a rather unique approach by mixing and shuffling the performers right from the start. The cast begins the show in essentially one voice, delivering the prologue as a unified whole. Actors step into and out of character in a heartbeat as key players are introduced, using slight costume changes to slip from one persona to the next, and a leading performer blends seamlessly back in with the ensemble in the blink of an eye. Columbus keeps these many moving pieces beautifully streamlined and TRC's actors meet the challenges of quick-fire transitions flawlessly.
Trinity's company also shines brightly in the song-and-dance elements of Ragtime. Sharon Jenkins' choreography makes excellent use of a compact central stage, and in true Trinity fashion, she employs the aisles and walkways all around the theater as additional performance space. Memorable musical numbers, including "Ragtime (Prologue)," "Crime of the Century," "Till We Reach That Day," "He Wanted to Say," and "What a Game!" delight the eye and the ear. TRC's outstanding instrumentalists -- Michael Rice (keyboard/conductor), Ron Christianson (trumpet), Richard Marchetti and Jerilyn Sykes (woodwinds), James Monaghan (trombone), Stephen Moss (viola), and Mike Sartini (percussion), along with Foley artist Julia Locascio -- deserve full praise for so richly interpreting Flaherty's score.
Wilkie Ferguson III is phenomenal as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. He inhabits this most crucial role with confidence and control, and every note he sings is resonant and packed full of emotion. Ferguson and Mia Ellis (as Sarah) deliver "Wheels of a Dream," one of Ragtime's signature songs, with genuine depth of feeling, and the duo's second act "Sarah Brown Eyes" is a heartrending and haunting piece of theater. Charlie Thurston brings utmost paternal tenderness to Tateh's "Gliding," then shows spot-on comedic timing in "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc." Rachael Warren's performance as Mother absolutely soars from the moment she takes the stage, and her dynamic rendition of "Back to Before" brings down the house during the second act. Warren and Thurston also pair wonderfully for the lovely, pensive duet "Our Children."
The company also includes Rebecca Gibel as the vivacious Evelyn Nesbit, Alexander De Vasconcelos Matos as Mother's fiery Younger Brother, and Evan Andrew Horwitz as the precocious and vastly entertaining Boy. Janice Duclos offers impassioned conviction as Emma Goldman while Taavon Gamble brings great dignity and gentle strength to his portrayal of Booker T. Washington. Stephen Thorne makes magic as Harry Houdini (with assistance from Nate Dendy's magical design), Brian McEleney's Grandfather is a riot with every line he utters, and Carla Martinez proves a first-rate chameleon, mastering multiple roles throughout the performance. Ragtime is so finely wrought that even the smallest part has a mighty impact on the storytelling, and truly, every member of this ensemble is worthy of recognition and praise.
Intriguingly, the performers spend much of this production in modern casual clothing, adding specific costume pieces -- a top hat, a corset, a sweater vest, a pair of glasses -- to signal the role they're playing and that character's station in life. Only briefly, after the shattering events that close the first act, are the actors fully attired in period dress. With Mother's awakened declarations in "Back to Before," the cast gradually sheds the vintage stylings to return to a predominantly present-day look. Kara Harmon's costume design reinforces a thoughtful and engaging interpretation of this story and its characters, and in certain key scenes, wardrobe selections deftly underscore the import of unfolding events.
Eugene Lee, who crafted the sets for the original Broadway run of Ragtime, tackles the staging for Trinity's production with a multi-tiered performance area and a floor-to-ceiling wooden staircase that serves as a cramped tenement house, a platform for public speakers, and Coalhouse's hideaway. Dan Scully's lighting design makes the stairway appear frigid with cold, threatening with shadows, or awash in a heavenly glow as each scene demands. Scully's subtle transition from sepia tones to clear daylight during Coalhouse's remembrances ("Sarah Brown Eyes") brings an extra significance to Ferguson's excellent interpretation of that scene.
Ragtime plays Trinity Repertory Company's Chace Theater through May 27, 2018. Ticket prices start at $25 and can be purchased online at www.trinityrep.com, by phone (401) 351-4242, or by visiting the box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence, RI. Contact (401) 521-1100 x 225 for group rate information.
Pictured: Mia Ellis as Sarah and Wilkie Ferguson III as Coalhouse Walker, Jr.
Photo by Mark Turek