Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Tag Archives: Ragtime
[This show has now been extended through March 9.]
One of the first things that resonates from the new production of the musical “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse is its timeliness. Nevermind that it is set in roughly 1900, that it is based on a 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, or that the musical had its American premiere here in Los Angeles in 1997. The topics of the book, and of the musical – the complacency of the rich, the struggles of the immigrant, and an income and justice system rigged against African Americans – are as clearly resonant today as perhaps at any time in-between.
Newly reimagined by director David Lee, the Playhouse production has been paired down to its essentials in ways which may not allow for the roar of a crowd, but create an intimate connection with the central characters that carries the story. Set in New York and peppered with that period’s famous individuals, it boils down to the story of a well-off white family from New Rochelle whose comfortable life is contrasted with, and eventually collides with other elements of the times. These include a desperate immigrant artist and his young daughter whose dreams of American prosperity come up against the harsh realities of the East Side slums, and a Harlem romance that goes sideways in the face of overt racial hatred.
The cast forms a fluid ensemble as characters rise who, one after another, form more than usually powerful connections with the audience. Standouts include Clifton Duncan in the wrenching part of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a man whose dreams dissolve in the brutality of racial divide. Marc Ginsburg manages the hope and the desperation of Tateh, the Eastern European immigrant unprepared for the reality of America.
Bryce Charles as the innocent young woman Walker woos, and Valerie Perri as the revolutionary Emma Goldman also shine, while Shannon Warne, as the white, well cared-for Mother in New Rochelle offers up a subtlety of emotional shift which, though not as dynamic as some of the others, creates a unifying arc.
Lee’s direction is tight, though setting the piece in the modern “warehouse of a national historical museum” (something you only discover if you read the program) is overly subtle. Still, Tom Buderwitz’s design – mostly masses of stacked, rather facile crates – does allow for a flow of empathetic projections by Hana Sooyeon Kim, and a constant tempo unimpeded by needed set changes. The hidden onstage orchestra, directed by Darryl Archibald, balances with the intimacy of the rest of the production while allowing some remarkable voices like Duncan’s to shine.
What sets this “Ragtime” apart from its predecessors is its ability to be large and small at the same time. There are huge themes underscoring the more personal individual tales, and these themes are, sadly, not foreign to anyone in the audience. Still, the connection created by individual characters, and the lack of white noise from a large supporting cast, brings this large world into a more audience-involved arena, where emotional connection can leave a lasting impact. Yes, sometimes small is better. Come see for yourself.
What: “Ragtime” When: through March 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays (no 7 p.m. performance Sunday, 2/24). Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: tickets start at $25. Info: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org
By design or by accident several local theater companies have offered up seasons including classic shows which address very, very current issues. One such is the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater where, and not for the first time in this last calendar year, they are producing something powerfully relevant while also being impressively entertaining.
Indeed, their recently opened production of Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical “Ragtime,” based on E.L.Doctorow’s award-winning novel, finds the setting of Candlelight Pavilion an advantage. Originally over-produced, this less overblown presentation allows what works in the show to shine through. And in times like these, the messages it has to offer prove particularly important.
The story of both novel and musical centers around three distinct groups of people, the African-American musical scene of Harlem centered around ragtime musician Colehouse Walker, the upscale white suburbanites defined by Mother, and the eastern European refugees focused on an Ashkenazi Jew from Latvia. As their stories bump into each other, and into the famous names of their New York, the layers of hardship and privilege, of racial stereotyping and artistic creativity, of injustice and promise intertwine in ways which prove both tragic and enriching. It is a disturbing mirror for anyone watching today, as many of its concerns are still uncomfortably present.
What makes “Ragtime” work is the richness of the music, and the genuineness of the characters most central to the tale. At Candlelight, the company’s largest-ever cast includes several remarkable performances which make this all happen. Standouts include strong, intensely focused and deeply heartfelt performance of Trance Thompson as Colehouse, balanced by the sincerity of Jessica Mason as Sarah, the mother of his child. Christianna Rowader gives a balance of empathy and frustration to Mother – a woman coming into her own at a time when society had already defined her place. In this she is aided by young Andrew Bar, articulate and interesting as Mother’s Little Boy.
As Tateh, Allen Everman evokes a quiet desperation while Orlando Montes and Cheyene Omani play with the characters of two of the era’s most colorful personas: magician Harry Houdini and scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. All of these are backed by a strikingly good ensemble who supply major figures of the time, and create the world in which these people move, and sing the show’s powerful songs. Most notable is RaShonda Johnson, whose dirge for the dead Sarah becomes one of the evening’s standout moments.
But, although the ending is frankly overly hopeful, “Ragtime” is worth seeing at this time in history because of what it shows us in our past: racial injustice and the historic grounding for Black distrust of institutions, marginalization and squalor as experienced by those who immigrated to this country during that time (and who we now know laid the groundwork for much of its success), and the myopia of traditional power structures intent on turning back the clock to a “safer” place. It is a warning, and it is a rich hope for a world where we can, indeed, look back on these stories as from a time which we have finally outgrown.
What: “Ragtime” When: through February 24, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com