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BWW Reviews: Kensington Arts Theatre Presents RAGTIME

BWW Reviews: Kensington Arts Theatre Presents RAGTIME

If one can say anything about Kensington Arts Theatre, better known as KAT, it's that it takes on difficult musical theatre material with seemingly nary a second thought. Past shows have included Rent, Next to Normal, The Last Five Years, Sunday in the Park with George, and even a premiere of Night of the Living Dead (The Musical), as well as many more. Upcoming shows next season include Les Miserables, Spring Awakening, and Parade. Therefore, it should come as no shock to anyone who has followed this ambitious community theatre, which makes its home in the MD suburbs, that it's currently taking on the epic show that is Stephen Flaherty (Music), Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics), and Terrence McNally's (Book) award-winning Broadway musical Ragtime. Even if there are aspects of the production that are problematic - even if it features some stellar performers - one has to at least admire the ambition.

Ragtime, based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel of the same name, reveals the melting pot that emerged in early 20th century New York City. Relaying the experiences of an archetypal upper-class New Rochelle white family, an African American musician from Harlem and his lover, and a widowed Jewish immigrant from Latvia determined to make a better life for his daughter outside of the Lower East Side tenements, we see how the worlds that were previously separate start to collide.

We are also introduced to familiar 'celebrities' of the day - including Henry Ford (Richard Dew), Harry Houdini (a distractingly cartoonish Bobby Libby who seems to think moving his arms with huge gestures every second is a good choice), Booker T. Washington (a compelling Montario Hill), Emma Goldman (a far too meek Sharon Alexander), Evelyn Nesbit (a very strong singer/actress Michelle Hill) and more - who are thoroughly entrenched in some of most intractable social, economic, and political issues of the day. The end result is a compelling layered depiction of an important time in American history filled with diverse music influences, stories, and experiences.

At KAT, Darnell Morris (Director/Choreographer) is largely successful in adapting this epically large-scale musical for the intimate KAT venue. Although the production features a necessarily large ensemble to represent the many social groups present in New York City at the time - many more than usually seen on KAT's stage - it's not quite as large as what was seen on Broadway or in a recent Kennedy Center production (which eventually moved to Broadway for a short run). For the most part, it still works. Ensemble members are cast in multiple roles and move seamlessly from one to another all while providing rich choral vocals.

However, a decision to use actors of different races in singular scenes where they are supposed to represent the experience of one race ("What a Game!" and more distractingly, earlier scenes establishing the divide between groups) detracts from one of the powerful messages of the play. A large part of what makes Ragtime so compelling is at first the groups have hard walls that divide them and slowly these walls begin to fall. Even if the multi-racial ensemble members aren't the focus of the scenes in question, it's harder to observe and internalize those important shifts.

The principal cast members are a mixed bag but to be sure all of them bring something special to the production.

Representing the upper-class suburban white family are Mother (Malinda Markland), Father (Brad Carnes-Stein), Grandfather (Joe Cannon), Younger Brother (Harrison Smith), and Little Boy (Cole Edelstein, in a role shared with Eli Schuman). Markland proves she's the most exquisite singer of the bunch and although I missed a solid, observable transition from subservient Mother to confident Mother found in many other productions - which may be a directorial issue - her well-trained yet expressive voice makes the show. Her rendition of "Back to Before" - a powerful song in which Mother moves from her past to her future - is simply stunning.

Likewise, Carnes-Stein is appropriately caustic and self-absorbed as Father and Cannon does well to show Grandfather's exasperation. Smith, like Markland, is a standout. He shows Brother's conflicts about his upbringing and his desire for social justice and change with palpable yet unforced emotion. With his strong voice (featured well on "He Wanted to Say") and commanding stage presence, he definitely has a future in musical theatre as does the supremely confident and wise-beyond-his-years Edelstein.

The African American contingent is led by ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Sayne-Kharyi Lewis) and his lover Sarah (Eben K. Logan, who also choreographed the show with Morris). Walker's plight - and by extension Sarah's - is the major sub-plot that serves as a catalyst for the overall story line and therefore it's imperative that two strong singer/actors take on these roles. They need to belt to the high heavens with strong emotion, have a strong chemistry with one another, and be able to express a range of heavy emotions in music and dialogue. Lewis' vocal stylings, though impressive, are better suited to roles in pop-based musicals rather than this one. Likewise, his portrayal of Walker makes use of mostly surface-level emotions. Therefore, he's a bit of a disappointment particularly in the heart-wrenching "Make Them Hear You" and the book scenes which depict Walker's unraveling. That said, he does better with more upbeat material such as "New Music," showcasing his beautiful tone and suave manner of singing. Logan is a powerhouse vocalist even if she went slightly off the rails at the end of "Your Daddy's Son," at the performance I attended. She is a strong actress to boot, able and willing to take on challenging material.

Tateh (Benjamin Greenfield) and his Little Girl (Shira Minsk, in a role shared with Julia Laje) represent the classic immigrant experience. Both Greenfield and Minsk are compelling actors and show heartfelt emotions as they traverse the new and challenging land that is New York City. Greenfield exudes charm, creativity, and innovation as Tateh, the man who is essentially seeking the American dream. He possesses a beautiful tone in songs like "Gliding" and is more than adequate in expressing his love for his little girl. Although he sometimes lacks complete vocal control, it is easier to overlook those shortcomings thanks to his other strengths.

No production of Ragtime would be complete without a strong orchestra. Mayumi B. Griffie's orchestra achieves a chamber music-like sound, which may or may not be ideal for this musical depending on preference. Although there were more than a few mishaps the night I saw the show - with far too many obviously missed notes than I'd usually like to hear - and tempos pushed a bit too fast in the first act, I do give the musicians credit for taking on the challenging score. A minimal yet effective set (Matt Karner) and professional sound and lighting designs (Zachary Lasko and Ben Levine, respectively) do not detract from the strength of the story and music. Although there were a few too many lighting cue mishaps the night I attended, the technical elements are largely successful.

Kudos to KAT for taking this one on.

Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.

Ragtime plays through May 25, 2013 at Kensington Town Center, 3710 Mitchell Street in Kensington, MD. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photo: Malinda Markland (Mother); courtesy of Kensington Arts Theatre.

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