Based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctrow, Ahren’s and Flaherty’s Ragtime is a compelling musical drama capturing the American experience at the turn of the 20th century. Tracking three diverse families in pursuit of the American dream in the volatile “melting pot” of turn-of-the-century New York, Ragtime confronts the dialectic contradictions inherent in American reality: experiences of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair. Over the course of the show, the worlds of a wealthy white couple, a Jewish immigrant father and his motherless daughter, and an African American ragtime musician intertwine. Together, they discover the surprising interconnections of the human heart, the limitations of justice and the unsettling consequences when dreams are permanently deferred. Featuring many of the historical figures that built and shaped turn-of-the-century America, including J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and Henry Ford, this musical sweeps across the diversity of the American experience to create a stirring epic that captures the beats of the American experience: the marches, the cakewalks and – of course, the ragtime.
I was fortunate enough to attend The Ritz Theatre Company‘s production of this relevant and moving musical on Friday January 19th. In the shows opening number we are introduced to the characters we will meet several times throughout the course of the play. There is some very obvious foreshadowing that takes place, and the audience is aware that these characters paths will most certainly cross at some point, though it is not clear how or why. One aspect of the production that immediately stood out to me was the lovely costuming by Tina Marie Heinze. The African American actors were decked out in red, the immigrants in blue, and the wealthy whites in…white. I’m not sure if this was the Directors choice, or the costumers, nevertheless it really helped set the tone, establish characterization, and show clear delineation and segregation between the groups.
The set was stripped down, with platforms at various heights, moving stair units, and dressed in a way that was reminiscent of several scaled-back productions of Les Miserables I have seen in recent history. I am always impressed by Kris Clayton’s set designs, and the way he is able to make such great use of a space that typically reads rather small from the audiences perspective. Lighting design was useful and helpful throughout most of the show, however there were several instances where actors either couldn’t or didn’t know how to “find the light,” particularly on the main platform, and the mini platform used stage right for most of the “Jewish family” scenes.
The biggest issue I had with the performance was the overall quality of the sound, both for mic’ed actors, and the volume levels of the recorded musical tracks used in lieu of a live orchestra. As a director who has on many occasions, for a variety of reasons, used canned music, I know it is no easy task trying to get the levels just right so I absolutely empathize and praise Matthew Gallagher, sound designer, for his efforts. Soloists, for the most part, seemed to over power the tracks, and various vocal parts during ensemble numbers seemed to dominate and the sound lacked an overall balance. I am not sure, having only seen it once, whether the sound was designed to have the orchestrations take a back seat to the vocals, or whether they were having technical difficulties. There were also many times actors entered speaking lines, only to have their mics brought up a few seconds after they had already begun speaking. Overall, minor hiccups in an otherwise professional looking and sounding production.
In general, the cast seemed very well rehearsed in all aspects, particularly the movement, choreography, and cleverly blocked out scene transitions. Even before looking at the production team on the program, my immediate assumption was that the director was probably also the choreographer. There is often times a tangible seamlessness between scenes when the same individual is responsible for both the blocking and the movement in a show. Peter John Rios is credited as both Director and Choreographer. I particularly appreciated the small magical moments during the Harry Houdini scenes, and the non-distracting use of the chorus men and women to change the moveable set pieces.
Out of a cast very talented actors, it was the child actors in particular that stood out. The young man who played Edgar, Nicky Intieri, and the young lady who played the Little Girl, Sara Chesnick, were absolutely fabulous, and could walk out on any professional theater stage, and no one would think twice or question it. The roles of Mother, Coalhouse, Sarah, and little brother played by Megan Ruggles, Kyrus Keenan Westcott, Tiffany Dawn Christopher, and Taylor Darden, respectively, were all very convincing in their portrayals. The actor who played Tateh, Fernando Gonzales, while not having a particularly strong vocal performance , his acting and commitment to his character and accent was much appreciated. Some of the other leads, while they all had shining moments, also had moments of inconsistency in their overall performance. The star vehicle moments for me personally were Coalhouses “Wheels of a Dream,” and Mother’s “Back to Before.” Both emotionally powerful and moving, and scarily relevant for the times we live in and the current state of our country. The finale sequence came off a little rushed and clunky, but considering the very competent and well thought out and planned blocking/ choreography I’m assuming it was a fluke.
All things considered this poignant and timeless story is one that should be seen and heard by both musical theatre aficionados and novices alike. It explores the human condition, the trials and tribulations we all must face as we go through life pursuing our purpose and fulfilling out dreams- while the clothing, and the music may change with time, there are certain things that never go out of style.
Ragtime is playing at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ running until February 4th!