A Bravura Production of Ragtime
This marks my fourth viewing of the munificent-in-spirit musical. I first saw Ragtime at the Shubert Theatre in Century City prior to its Broadway debut with Brian Stokes Mitchell, LaChanze, John Rubinstein, Marcia Mitzman Gaven and Jason Graae. I considered it one of the best musicals of the 20th century. Ragtime opened at the Ford Center on December 26, 1997 with Audra McDonald replacing LaChanze, and Marin Mazzie taking over the role of Mother. The New Yorker called it "a powerful theatre experience." I saw the production again in the spring of '98 and was once again enchanted with the dancing, singing and score. Ragtime was awarded Tony Awards for Best Book, Score and Orchestrations, and Ms. McDonald walked off with the award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. The production ran 834 performances. I also saw one of the first regional productions of Ragtime, a highly professional one [see Richard's review].
Ragtime tells the story of America at the turn of the century, of the struggles of immigrants and the racism and social injustice that existed for minorities while the solid upper class white Americans bemoaned the closing of the era when "there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants." Even though the story is complex, it all comes together amazingly in this three hour musical. Jay Manley has put 60 wonderful singers and dancers on the Smithwick stage, working in perfect harmony. Tyler Risk's opening dance number is dazzling, with the flocks of white folks contrasting with the high stepping blacks and ragtag immigrants in the ragtime number.
Stephen Flaherty's music uses various American styles, from ragtime to the gospel anthem "Till We Reach That Day." There is even some music influenced by Sondheim in several of the songs. Lynn Ahrens' lyrics and Terrence McNally's book reaches great heights in several of the scenes. Much ground is covered in this classic musical, but the scenes flow smoothly. Coalhouse's "Gettin' Ready Rag" is joyful to watch, and the baseball number in the second act comes at just the right time to relieve the tension.
This Ragtime cast is outstanding. James Monroe Iglehart (BATCC award for Foothill's Showboat and appearances at TheatreWorks in Bat Boy, A Little Night Music and Memphis) makes a magnetic Coalhouse. His voice is powerful and the hardness of his pride is par excellence. Julie Valentine (FMT's On the Town, Show Boat and Into the Woods) gives a great performance as Sarah, a woman caught up in the early civil rights movement. She has great emotion in her duet "Wheels of a Dream" with Coalhouse.
Other outstanding performances include Catherine Sheldon as Emma Goldman, who has the accent down pat. She is a perfect labor agitator. Jessica Lynn Carroll makes a great Evelyn Nesbit. While many actresses have played this role with a certain amount of naiveté, Carroll plays the role like a street-wise person who knows what she is doing. Mary Melnick, as Mother, provides a delicate, poignant transformation through the constant changing of her world. She has a great dramatic voice in her rendition of "What Kind of Woman." Paul Araquistain nails Tateh's desperation as an immigrant trying to find the American Dream. Robert Brewer has an admirable voice in "He Wanted to Say."
The dancers are first rate, especially in the "Gettin' Ready Rag" and the opening number. J.B. Wilson and Joe Ragey's sets are basically the same ones that were on the TheatreWorks stage in Mountain View. They're terrifically lit by Kurt Landisman, and the costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are the same as the TheatreWorks production.
Ragtime runs through August 15 at the Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College, 1-280 at El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets call 650-949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/fa