Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Ragtime
And Then There Were None


Derrick Cobey and Ensemble
Photo by Mark Garvin
Bristol Riverside Theatre is offering a solid, excellent production of Ragtime, one of the best new musicals of the past few decades. It's a moving show with wonderful music and a powerful story whose relevance has not dimmed.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's sweeping 1975 novel, Ragtime begins as the story of a prosperous white family living outside New York City in the early twentieth century, a world that seems peaceful and genteel—to this family's eyes, there was no unrest and, in a line taken from the novel, "there were no negroes." But the family learns quickly how unrealistic their viewpoint is. Soon, they are drawn into the worlds of two turbulent communities desperate to make their marks on the world: the blacks of Harlem, represented by the proud and dignified ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the immigrants of the Lower East Side, represented by the tirelessly striving Jewish peddler Tateh. Ragtime interweaves the stories of the three groups in a world that grows increasingly chaotic—and after Coalhouse is victimized by a racist mob, the groups end up on a tragic collision course.

That's a lot to fit into a musical, and I haven't even mentioned the appearances by celebrities of the era, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington, who interact with the main characters and comment on the action. Terrence McNally's script manages to include nearly every plot thread from the novel, and the story's many digressions never seem less than necessary. Stephen Flaherty's music is filled with gorgeous melodies—evocations of the jazz, vaudeville, and Yiddish folk music of the era, plus soaring anthems that pull at the heartstrings—while Lynn Ahrens' lyrics are filled with wit, insight into the characters, and perfect rhymes. And except for an over-reliance on bombastic ballads near the end of act one, all of the show's elements seem perfectly arranged.

One problem with staging Ragtime, though, is that there are so many characters to devote time to—BRT's production has 33 actors. And even with Jason Simms' sparse but effective sets, that's a lot of people to fit onto a relatively small stage. It's hard to stand out in a cast like that—and the sound mix, which makes some of the dialogue and lyrics hard to hear from the mezzanine, doesn't help. But the best of the singers—Leslie Becker as Mother, Ciji Prosser as Coalhouse's fiancĂ©e Sarah, and especially Derrick Cobey's dynamic, rousing Coalhouse—manage to cut through. Keith Baker's busy direction doesn't allow time for much reflection, but there are some charming performances, notably Michael Thomas Holmes as Tateh and Chelsey Jean as the real-life tabloid sensation Evelyn Nesbit. Stephen Casey's choreography tends to be repetitive, except for one terrific, jazzy ensemble number, "Gettin' Ready Rag."

Ragtime uses stirring music and memorable characters to show that in a seemingly idyllic time, racial and ethnic strife was pervasive—and that the forces of class warfare, represented here by the banker J.P. Morgan and the anarchist Emma Goldman, were at the roots of much of that strife. It's an age-old story still being echoed today, and rarely told as beautifully and melodically as it is here.

Ragtime runs through Sunday, April 12, 2015, at at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa. Ticket start at $42, with discounts available for students, groups and military personnel, and are available by calling the box office at 215-785-0100 or online at www.BRTStage.org.



Laurent Giroux, Jessica Bedford and Paul L. Nolan
Photo by Mark Garvin
Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None, adapted for the stage by Christie a few years after its 1939 publication, is generally regarded as a classic of suspense. But there's no suspense in director Charles Abbott's new production at the Walnut Street Theatre. Ten strangers—none of them likable—are assembled on an isolated island off the coast of England, and we learn all their personality traits in the most perfunctory manner possible. Then they get bumped off one by one, while the remaining residents try to figure out who is committing the murders and why. It's a marvelously clever plot, but in the stagy, stilted way it's handled here, it's like the least exciting game of "Clue" ever.

The performances are mostly superficial and far too somber; only Harry Smith, as an out-of-touch aristocrat, gives his role any color. (Naturally, he's the first one to get killed.) To be fair, though, the actors don't have much to work with; Christie's characters here have little depth, and their attitudes are ludicrously out of date. (The scene where Damon Bonetti's character shows how to handle a woman by slapping her across the face to stop her hysterics—"She'll be all right," he says brusquely—got unintended laughs from the audience.) Andrew Thompson's hunting lodge set design is handsome, and everything looks great, although leading lady Jessica Bedford needs to pull her hair back, since every time she turns to the side her face disappears.

Three seasons ago, in a swell production of Christie's The Mousetrap, the Walnut showed us what they were capable of: a thriller which was actually thrilling, not to mention fast-moving, entertaining, and funny. Alas, And Then There Were None is none of those things. This time, I didn't care who the murderer was. I just wanted everybody to die and get it all over with.

And Then There Were None runs through Sunday, April 26, 2015, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket are priced from $20 to $85 and are available by calling the box office at 800-982-2787, or online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy


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