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Powerful “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse

The cast of “Ragtime” at the Pasadena Playhouse: a smaller ensemble proves mighty where it counts.

[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

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