Reviewed by Judy Richter
Producing "Ragtime," the musical based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, is a daunting task because it requires a huge cast of singer-actors and precise staging, but Broadway By the Bay, a community company, meets the challenge beautifully. With staging by artistic director Brooke Knight, musical direction by Mark Hanson and choreography by Berle Davis, "Ragtime" is yet another triumph for this company.
The timing seems fortuitous, given the nation's shame and horror at what happened in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. The plight of the mostly black, mostly poor people who were stranded in the ravaged city exposed a dirty national secret: Class and race differences persist despite our best-intentioned efforts.
Although it is set in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1906, nearly a century ago, "Ragtime" resonates with class and race differences as it focuses on three families: a well-off white family in New Rochelle, a black family from Harlem and an immigrant Jewish family from Europe. It also includes some well-known people of the time. The way that the musical's author, Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens weave their stories together has resulted in one of the greatest American musicals of the late 20th century. "Prologue: Ragtime," which introduces the whites, blacks and immigrants is truly one of the most memorable scenes ever, and BBB does it full justice.
The story starts with the New Rochelle family, which includes Father (Gregory A. Tittle), Mother (Susan Himes Powers), Mother's Younger Brother (Nicholas Kealy), Grandfather (John Musgrave) and the Little Boy, Edgar (Andrew Sanford). They're wealthy enough that Father can afford to go on a year-long expedition to the North Pole with Adm. Robert E. Perry. While he's gone, Mother finds an abandoned, black, newborn boy in her garden and takes him into her home along with his mother, Sarah (Dawn L. Troupe). Eventually the baby's father, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Kieleil DeLeon), a ragtime pianist, is joyfully reunited with them. Coalhouse has big dreams for himself, Sarah and their son, but an encounter with a group of redneck firemen led by Willie Conklin (Matthew Ferretti) results in a tragic end for him and Sarah.
In the meantime, an immigrant artist, Tateh (Tim Reynolds), arrives in New York City with his daughter, the L ittle Girl (Carly Cozad). His wife is dead and he has no money, yet he's full of hope for a better life in America. He faces hardships worse than he encountered in his homeland, but eventually his persistence and talent pay off.
As for the white family, they represent a spectrum of attitudes. Grandfather asks Coalhouse if he knows "any coon songs," while Father, though civil, refuses to shake Coalhouse's hand. Mother's Younger Brother is a firebrand who finds what he's looking for in the speeches of Emma Goldman (Linda Piccone), who advocates better conditions for factory workers. Mother sees Sara and the baby as people who need her help even though she has had little contact with black people before. She's the one who changes the most, starting as a woman totally dependent on her husband and ending as a woman who thinks and acts for herself.
Except for Ferretti, whose Willie Conklin could be more menacing, all of these actors develop their characters well, and most of them are excellent singers, especially Powers, Tittle, DeLeon, Reynolds and Kealy. Troupe as Sarah has a good voice, but her phrasing (where she breathes) could be better. Also noteworthy in the cast are James Creer as Booker T. Washington, Stephen Perez as Harry Houdini and Carrie Madsen Olson as Evelyn Nesbit. However, the orchestra sometimes overpowers the singers, and the trumpets need to blend better and play their staccato notes more cleanly.
Davis' choreography is outstanding, especially for the Harlem ensemble. The sets are from Theatreworks, the costumes from TheatreWorks and Foothill Music Theatre. Lighting is by Michael Ramsaur, sound by Sound on Stage.
"Ragtime" is truly a great show, and this is a terrific production.