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BWW Reviews: Shaw Festival's RAGTIME Dazzles

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“It was the music of something beginning,” states the lyric in the opening number of the musical Ragtime. While recently attending the Shaw Festival’s scintillating new production of this musical that line resonated as I thought back to the musical’s World Premiere in North York in December of 1996. That was a time when all eyes in the theatrical world were on Toronto as a birthplace for new productions.

Producer Garth Drabinsky was looking for a follow-up to his acclaimed revival of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat. A team that included composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, book writer Terrence McNally, and director Frank Galati set about transforming E.L.Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime into a powerful new musical play. Drabinsky was sparing no expense to ensure this musical would have everything: spectacular visuals, a compelling story, a richly melodic score built on the rhythms of early 20th Century Ragtime music, and dream cast including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Mark Jacoby. The roar of approval that erupted from the opening night crowd was like nothing Toronto had heard or seen in many years.

Much the same reaction greets the Shaw Festival’s consummate new production. In Niagara-on-the-Lake the buzz about Shaw’s 2012 season seems to consist of one question: “Have you seen Ragtime yet?”

Happily the performance more than lives up to the almost impossibly high expectations. Director Jackie Maxwell and a dedicated team of designers, performers and musicians do everything in their power to ensure that the show delivers a spectacular emotional roller-coaster ride balancing dazzling entertainment, with a serious story, and sparkling musical performances.
Music director Paul Sportelli does his usual exemplary job of bringing out the rich colors in Stephen Flaherty’s score and weaving them into a musical tapestry that seamlessly blends with Terrence McNally’s script and Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics to usher us into the world of early 20th century America.
Right from the first tentative piano notes that introduce the musical’s lengthy prologue sequence, you can feel the refreshing optimism that had taken root in the U.S.A. at the time. “An era exploding, a century spinning” sings the ensemble with excited enthusiasm, completely unmindful of the difficult times ahead.

McNally’s skillful adaptation of Doctorow’s novel centers on a white upper middle class family – so generic that the characters are not given names and merely referred to by their familial positions – Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, etc. Doctorow later said that he viewed these people as the real historic characters and people like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and others as fictional. In the prologue this family along with their friends and neighbors pose for photographs while celebrating life in a town where “there were no Negros and there were no immigrants.” All of this is about to change.

When the ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. introduces the family to the sound of this “New Music,” they are not quite sure of what to make of it. Father in particular, despite being a self-admitted amateur explorer expects the world to stay the same. “Nothing much happens in a year” he assures mother as he departs on an expedition to the North Pole. Benedict Campbell as Father superbly shows how his stalwart beliefs are challenged and altered by the sweep of the changing times. His final conversation with Coalhouse is played with a slight feeling of sad resignation that beautifully underscores the poignancy of his transformation.

Coalhouse, as played by Thom Allison, is the kind of star performance one has come to expect from this gifted performer. Over the years, Allison has proven to be an actor capable of exploring every aspect of the character he is portraying and building a completely organic performance. His passion comes through even more apparently when singing. When he raises his voice in the climatic “Make Them Hear You” the result is one of many spine-tingling moments in this production.

Another arrives at the end of Act One when Nicola Lawrence leads the Sarah’s dramatic funeral procession with the stirring “Till We Reach That Day.” Audience members are quickly flipping through their programs as the intermission commences to find out who this singer was, and hoping (in vain as it turns out) that she will return later in the show. It’s a fantastic number, but curiously the singer is only identified as “Sarah’s Friend” yet nothing in the text establishes the connection.
Alana Hibbert plays the doomed Sarah with quiet dignity, and an almost child-like innocence. She too gets to display her vocal prowess with a moving rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son” and joins Allison to make “Wheels of a Dream” an inspiring declaration.

EVan Alexander Smith delivers a passionate performance as Mother’s Younger Brother and makes the transition from idealistic young man to budding revolutionary believable.
With so many fine performances on stage, it is distressing to say that Patty Jamieson as Mother is unable to build the role into something more substantial. Jamieson tends to chirp when both speaking and singing which gives the character a flighty quality not indicated by the text. Although her scenes with Jay Turvey as the immigrant Tateh have a compelling tenderness, her big number “Back to before” lacks the force it requires.

Turvey makes the most of his moments, particularly in his scenes with his daughter. The song “Gliding” has a gentle warmth that infuses the moment with feeling .

In the peripheral roles, Kate Hennig impresses the most with her portrayal of Emma Goldman, while Julie Martell makes Evelyn Nesbitt’s courtroom vaudeville turn into a delightful bit of fun. Kelly Wong has some gravity-defying bits as Harry Houdini, while Anthony Malarky and Peter Millard play up the pompousity of both J.P.Morgan and Henry Ford.

It all comes back to Jackie Maxwell who ensures that even these small cameo roles are brought quickly into sharp focus. Valerie Moore’s choreography fits seamlessly with Maxwell’s detailed direction, and the whole show looks gorgeous thanks especially to Sue LePage’s designs for both the sets and costumes and to Alan Brodie’s razor-sharp lighting.

Those who saw Ragtime when it premiered in North York in 1996 will no doubt welcome a chance to take a second look at this musical. The Shaw Festival production makes a good case for Ragtime to take its place alongside Show Boat as one of the great American musicals.

Ragtime plays at the Festival Theatre at Shaw until October 14. For performance schedule and ticket ordering go to www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.

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