Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A Great Production of Ragtime
TheatreWorks continues its 33rd season with the first San Francisco Bay regional production of the Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally masterpiece, Ragtime. Artistic director Robert Kelley is presenting a superb production of the musical, one that is worthy of a Broadway presentation. He has assembled over 50 actors to tell the chronicles of the journeys of a black man, a Jewish immigrant and an upper class family as they struggle to find their places in a rapidly changing America.
I first saw Ragtime prior to its Broadway run at the Schubert Theatre in Los Angeles. I thought it was the last great musical of the 20th Century. I saw the New York production with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Mark Jacoby at the Ford Center in 1998 and again I had the same feeling. Ragtime chalked up 834 performances at that theater. I wondered just what a regional company would do with this show. I am not disappointed - Ragtime will go down as one of TheatreWorks' best presentations. It is a gorgeous spectacle that still works with a look of simplicity.
Ragtime opens with the The Little Boy (Darren Barrere) sitting on the floor of the front center of the stage looking toward the back of the stage and then turning around to give the prologue that introduces the human and musical elements of America at the turn of the 20th century. This preface goes into the stirring title song, sung and danced by the complete cast. The white bread family comes out singing about their untroubled existence in which "there were no Negroes" just as the Negroes enter into the wheel of life. No sooner do we hear "there were no immigrants" than that group comes out onto the stage. They all continue into a conditional dance of assimilation. The wheel dance is elegantly choreographed by Christopher Windom. The musical continues on a high road of excellence for the next three hours. We see the likes of Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, the great Houdini, Henry Ford and J.P Morgan as they shape America.
Director Robert Kelly has assembled a superb cast of singers, dancers and actors. There is not one weak performance in this presentation. C. Mingo Long is magnetic as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. He has a powerful voice and is especially wonderful in the arrangement of "Make Them Hear You" and his "Soliloquy." Alice Vienneau gives a consummate performance as Mother. She has a bell clear voice in her renditions of "What Kind of Woman" and "Back to Before." Sarah, the tragic black woman who stumbles into the life of Mother and her family, is played by April Armstrong. Ms. Armstrong has a lovely voice and she sings the heartfelt "Your Daddy's Son" with great emotion. Her acting has great pathos.
Popular actress Lucinda Hitchcock Hone displays great acting chops as Emma Goldman, and her accent is right on the mark. Jonathan Hammond is flawless as Tateh, the oppressed Jewish peddler who becomes a movie director. Lianne Marie Dobbs is bonny as Evelyn Nesbit. Her "The Crime of the Century" is first rate. The two children, Darren Barrere and Jennifer Brissman, are outstanding. Both of these 11 year olds give natural performances with no precocious acting; both should have promising careers in the theater. 'vid Buttaro gives a strong performance as Mother's Younger Brother. Randall Gremillion as Father, John Musgrave as Grandfather and Daraj Maxfield as Houdini are excellent in their respective roles.
The orchestra under the direction of William Liberatore is top drawer. Set design by J.B. Wilson is on the mark. Many of the sets look the same as the original Broadway production.
Ragtime plays through September 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Tickets can be purchased by calling 650-903-6000 or visit their web site at www.theatreworks.org. There next production will be Pamela Glen's The Syringa Tree opening on October 9.