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Ragtime the Musical, Presented by Stagecrafters at Baldwin Theater, Royal Oak MI
Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)
Photos courtesy of Stagecrafters
Dazzling, Daring “Ragtime” Arrives at the Baldwin’s Main Stage
The turn of the last century was the gateway to America’s modern era. Revolutions in communication, transportation, society and culture were happening almost daily. The musical “Ragtime”, one of the most important and ambitious shows Stagecrafters has ever presented, offers a unique perspective on our nation’s evolving struggles with income and social injustice during those turbulent times.
Gracing this spectacular show are rousing anthems, moving ballads, period jazz and that ever-popular ragtime, which was born in the 1890s in black music halls. The emergence of ragtime, a uniquely American musical form, at the dawn of the Twentieth Century represents the first time African-American music had such an impact on popular culture as a whole.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 historical novel, “Ragtime” was adapted for the stage by Terence McNally and set to music by Stephen Flaherty, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. It premiered on Broadway in 1998 and received 13 Tony nominations, winning four awards, including Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical. With its extravagant production budget, it was a popular success, but not a financial one, and received mixed reviews.
Doctorow spins an epic tale, spanning the years from 1906 through 1914, which takes place in New Rochelle, NY, Harlem and Atlantic City. The show’s first number sets the stage, putting you squarely in the context of the period. We are introduced to the celebrity sensations of the day, like magician Harry Houdini, artist’s model and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, automotive magnate Henry Ford and leader Booker T. Washington. Note that McNally’s book takes creative license with some of the real-life characters to make them more entertaining for the stage.
An epic tale needs an equally epic cast. A total of nearly 60 performers take the stage, including the ensemble casts which represent three diverse social and economic classes: the New Rochelle Ensemble (privileged white upper class); the Harlem Ensemble (oppressed blacks); and the Immigrant Ensemble (struggling newcomers).
In one opening sequence, the different ensemble casts rotate around each other onstage, warily eyeing each other, to the lively syncopated rhythm of that newest music, ragtime. The main storylines focus on individuals representing each group: for New Rochelle’s wealthy white enclave is a family known only as Mother, Father, Little Boy, Grandfather and Younger Brother; Harlem’s story is told through the eyes of ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker and his beloved, Sarah; the Immigrants are seen through the experiences of a widowed Jewish-Latvian artist named Tateh, and his young daughter, known only as Little Girl.
The entire cast is strong, yet there are standouts. Kaela Green as Sarah delivers gorgeous vocals, showcased in several numbers including “New Music”. She and Dez Walker, superb as Coalhouse, have hauntingly lovely duets in “The Wheels of a Dream” and “Sarah Brown Eyes”. Walker offers a compelling performance as the gifted, tragic, tenderhearted Coalhouse.
Sara Rydzewski offers a warm and compassionate performance as Mother, with a forceful, melodic voice. Hers is a pivotal role – a sort of loving bridge between the privileged whites and the blacks and immigrants who strive for justice. Her Younger Brother (Matthew Miga) shares her desire to offer a helping hand, as only those in power can. Her obstinate husband, played by Edmond Guay, eventually comes to see how harmful his attitudes are.
Newly-arrived immigrant Tateh, in a captivating performance by Patrick Lane, is a talented and creative man and father. Lane’s Tateh is upbeat, funny, caring and determined, the kind of guy America should want. But still he struggles, yet prevails in the end in one of the most endearing examples of fulfilling The American Dream.
Director Randall Wrisinger takes on this sweeping spectacle with sure-footed staging, no easy task with the largest cast ever to appear on the Baldwin stage. There are times when the energy seems to flag a little, but the overall effect is a triumph for the cast and crew.
Video projections onstage, skillfully guided by Michael Grice and Geoff Wrobel, and perfectly-timed sound effects by Bob Minchella are nice enhancements to the simple set by Tim Hughes. Good lighting effects by Matt Weber help lend texture and contrast to the ever-changing scenes. Valerie Mould’s choreography has some excellent moments, especially in numbers like “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker”.
There are over 50 songs, each with different performers. The 15-piece orchestra, conducted by Wrisinger and assistant conductor Jay Smith, handles the challenging score with assurance, with only a few pitchy spots that will hopefully be worked out.
The storytelling in McNally’s script itself is only partly successful. It can be cumbersome and hard to follow. But even though there’s a lot to take in and the message loses its focus at times, this powerful show remains relevant, engaging and appealing. A caveat: there are some truly dark moments onstage, and the wince-inducing racist language reflecting attitudes of those times can be hard to listen to.
Even though we’re looking back over 100 years ago, we know progress has been halting, and the lessons have not yet been completely learned. Every human being has value, and deserves equal respect and justice. We have come a long way as a nation, with a long way yet to go. “Ragtime” illuminates one stepping-stone on our ever-winding path.
Stagecrafters is proud to partner with Freedom House Detroit for the production of Ragtime. Freedom House is a temporary home for individuals and families fleeing persecution in other countries and seeking safety in the United States. Freedom House offers housing and basic needs, onsite legal aid, and a full suite of social services to help their clients heal from trauma, prepare for life in the U.S., and win asylum.
When: Now through October 6, 2019
8:00 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays
2:00 p.m. Sundays
Tickets $23-$27; also discounts for Veterans and youth age 17 and under on Sundays and Thursdays
Where: Baldwin Theatre, Main Stage
415 S. Lafayette
Royal Oak, MI 48067