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Chicago by John Olson

Ragtime
Porchlight Theatre Chicago

Also see John's review of It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's Superman!

Ragtime
Drew Mikuska, Charissa Armon, Aaron Graham, and Leah Rose Orleans
It had been heralded as the next Oklahoma!, and after hearing the concept album that preceded its U.S. productions (Los Angeles in 1997 and Broadway in 1998), I was expecting no less. When I first saw the show in LA's 2100-seat (and now demolished) Shubert Theatre, though, it seemed less than I was hoping for. The sets were stunning, the cast fine (La Chanze was Sarah, John Rubinstein was Tateh, but Brian Stokes Mitchell has left for New York by then), the concept album's songs and more were all there. The parts were all terrific but the whole didn't add up to the emotional journey I was expecting. I had the same reaction when I saw it in Chicago at the 2253-seat Oriental Theatre.

Porchlight's production, which opened in April at Theatre Building Chicago and reopened in June for an open-ended run at the Apollo Theater, is of the scaled-down variety, following the lead of Stafford Arima's productions in London and at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey. My first time seeing a Ragtime on this scale, it was for me a revelation and finally delivered the sort of show I had pictured. Sitting just a few rows from performers who were not dwarfed by the gigantic sets of the original productions, I found myself able to connect with the characters and see them as more fully-realized people rather than archetypes. The big, musical moments "Wheels of a Dream," "Make Them Hear You," "Back to Before," and "Till We Reach That Day" seemed much more earned than they had in the original.

With my focus more on the characters, I became more appreciative of Terrence McNally's economical book, detailing the intertwining stories of an affluent white family, an African-American couple, and a poor Jewish immigrant and his daughter. Director Walter Stearns' cast is equally economical in bringing them to life. Though Porchlight's development contract with Actors' Equity required only two Equity members in the cast, it would be impossible to guess which two performers they were, if not listed in the program.

At the heart of the story is Mother, whose compassion brings the three disparate families together. Charissa Armon effectively plays the subtext of the woman who has been moving toward greater independence from her paternalistic husband (nicely done by Bil Ingraham) and has the opportunity to follow her own conscience when an extraordinary event occurs during an extended absence of her husband. Armon shows us the soul of Mother and it's what we need to get going on this journey. The immigrant Tateh, a Latvian Jew, is played by Aaron Graham with a convincing accent that never falls into ethnic stereotype. He balances Tateh's fear, determination and resourcefulness and gives the character a winning sense of humor. Armon and Graham have been doing impressive work on off-Loop stages for a number of years and they have really blossomed into mature performers here.

The ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah, the mother of his child, spark the crisis (and the story's ultimate tragedy) when Sarah abandons their son who is discovered by Mother. Jayson Brooks looks to be a younger, more impetuous Coalhouse, and we never doubt the passion that binds him to Sarah or the conviction that causes him to tragically stand up to the white majority. As Sarah, Karla Beard (who played the role in Porchlight's Theatre Building engagement but will be replaced by Alexis J. Rogers after opening weekend at the Apollo) has the sweetness, naiveté and strength of the innocent Sarah. Following in the footsteps of now-Broadway legends Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, their vocals are impressive and suffer not a bit from comparison to the originals. Scott Sowinski is a believably intense Younger Brother, Maggie Portman a delightful Evelyn Nesbit, and Jeremy Trager a seemingly possessed Houdini. The veteran child actor Drew Mikuska is a charming Little Boy.

Stearns uses the small thrust stage of the Apollo inventively. His cast of 21 enters from the aisles as well as from upstage to make use of every inch of real estate. The whites, African-Americans and immigrants are rotated on and off stage and at times all together on it, to show the separateness of the three communities as effectively as had been done on the larger stages of the early Broadway, touring and sit-down productions. In place of the massive, detailed and inventive sets of the original, Roy Hine has designed a set that is a fairly literal façade of the white family's New Rochelle home, but neutral enough to suggest other locations with the help of the lighting design of John Horan. The costumes by Bill Morey betray no budget or space limitations, but are period-perfect and colorful.

Scaled-down though it may be, Ragtime's score makes it majestic. Stephen Flaherty's music is performed stunningly by the cast, who also act the poetry of Lynn Ahrens' lyrics. Further, the company actors in secondary roles as well as ensemble members doubles up on parts to further deliver the scope of this epic on a smaller stage, and they execute Brenda Didier's energetic choreography with precision. It must take some energy to keep up with Ms. Didier, who choreographed Ragtime, Jerry Springer, The Life, and for all I know, more, in the past couple of months. Flaherty's score magically seems to be performed by a much bigger orchestra than its six instrumentalists under Eugene Dizon's direction. Dizon leads them and the cast in a masterful performance of the demanding score.

Anyone who's seen Ragtime in its earlier and bigger incarnations ought to see a more intimate version like this one, to see how much powerful it when the focus is fully on the characters and the story. Everyone else with an interest in musical theatre should see it too and they should see this production. Large or small, it's not going to be often that a regional company will be able to put together a production of this demanding show that is so well directed and performed.

Ragtime is performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln, Chicago. For tickets call the Apollo Box Office at 312-935-6100, call Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. The run is open-ended.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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