Review: Ragtime: The Musical. Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Produced by the 5th Avenue Theatre. Directed by Peter Rothstein. Choreography by Kelli Foster Warder. Musical Direction by Ben Whiteley. Scenic Design by Michael Hoover. Costume Design by Trevor Bowen. Lighting Design by Duane Schuler. Sound Design by Christopher Walker. With Asa Adams, Andi Alhadeff, Eric Ankrim, Joshua Carter, Lauren Du Pree, Danyel Fulton, Emily Hamilton, Hugh Hastings, Louis Hobson, Coleman Hunter, Apollo Jones, Matthew Kacergis, Kendra Kassebaum, Douglas Lyons, Richard Peacock, Tatum Poirrier, Marrsean Sonko, Billie Wildrick, Ty Willis. Now through November 5, 2017 at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
No fooling around here…the 5th Avenue Theatre’s just opened production of RAGTIME is the best musical production this year and the best thing on the 5th Avenue’s stage since they did “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” over a year and a half ago. Director Peter Rothstein has done a brilliant job of adapting and staging this beautiful but problematic musical which has received critical praise since its initial production twenty years ago for its lush score and beautiful production values but has also seldom been a success otherwise. Ragtime’s huge cast and sprawling mise en scene have caused it to be seldom staged due to the big budget needed to adequately stage it.
And, the numerous and complex plot threads of Ragtime, based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow, are a lot to condense and a lot to follow in a piece of musical theater. There are three fictitious story lines in Ragtime, each following a different archetype of characters…an upper class well to do white family; a father/young daughter pair of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe; a black ragtime pianist and his girlfriend and child. These three main threads intertwine with the real world of early 20th century American history and real world characters like escape artist Harry Houdini, educator Booker T. Washington, banker J.P. Morgan and chorus girl/socialite Evelyn Nesbit and many others to create a fascinatingly intricate tapestry that illustrates the beginnings of modern culture and society, both the good and not so good.
The 5th Avenue has spared no expense in staging this lavish production but Mr. Rothstein, who originally staged and adapted this work at Minneapolis’s Theater Latté Da last year to great acclaim, has stripped down the cast and the elaborate set design. Gone are the huge choruses used in the original productions and now the entire ensemble of 16 play multiple roles. Also gone are expensive set pieces like working Model T cars as Mr. Rothstein uses the motif of the piano to symbolically represent that all important plot point (as well as other staging devices). In fact, that’s just one device the director uses to create a carefully structured and symbolic show that unites the many plot threads in Ragtime, including a very clever use of silhouette that recalls a key plot/character point of one of the main characters.
Mr. Rothstein’s thoughtful, smart staging is also closely tied to other production and design elements with several of the key collaborators on this production having worked with the director on their previous staging in Minneapolis including choreographer Kelli Foster Warder (smoothly complex choreography and movement), set designer Michael Hoover (chiefly, a starkly evocative wall with several doorways) and costume designer Trevor Bowen (richly textured period costumes from the early 1900s).
They were joined locally by Duane Schuler’s dramatic use of light to create mesmerizing and powerful images, many of them tied to a use of sudden, flashing light as well as the already mentioned scenes using silhouette/back lighting and shadow. Mr. Schuler’s lighting design is the best I’ve seen in Seattle for a very long time.
This production also sounds glorious with new orchestrations by Bruce Monroe; vocal arrangements by Kat Sherrell, and Ben Whiteley’s terrific music direction. Not only does the orchestra sound fantastic but vocally, this cast is very impressive with beautiful singing from all three principals: Kendra Kassebaum as Mother, Douglas Lyons as Coalhouse Walker and Joshua Carter as Tateh.
All three of those actors also excel with the acting as well, with Ms Kassebaum’s loving portrayal of the strongly maternal figure who comes into her sense of self worth over the length of the show a huge highlight. And, Mr. Lyons and Mr. Carter are both equally impressive as the impassioned (and ill-fated) Coalhouse and the also impassioned Jewish immigrant father, Tateh. The superb acting and singing of this trio give Ragtime its heart and soul.
The supporting cast is also very strong with Andi Alhadeff superb as a fiery, funny but passionate labor leader Emma Goldman, one of the “real” personalities in the show. Also strong: Danyel Fulton’s gorgeous performance as Sarah, the tragic lover to Coalhouse and the mother of his child, who delivers the emotional goods in her beautiful solo number “Your Daddy’s Son” delivered to her infant son.
Ragtime still suffers from “Second Act Syndrome”, a common malady in musical theater where the second act can’t live up to the power of its first act. Act One of Ragtime covers a huge amount of plot and the closing scenes of the act are riveting, powerful and hard to live up to in Act Two. (You could almost see JUST performing the first act of Ragtime and ignoring the second…) That said, it’s worth sticking around after the intermission; the strength of this production and its superb elements make it well worth experiencing.
The 5th Avenue Theatre’s Ragtime is divinely inspired musical dramatic theater…a beautifully executed musical portrait of early 20th Century America exquisitely staged, designed and performed. It’s a must see theater experience and very highly recommended.