'Ragtime: The Musical'

Ben Miles

One of the most powerful emotional experiences this critic has had in the theater was during the United States premiere production of “Ragtime: The Musical” at Los Angeles’s now demolished Shubert Theatre. That was 1997 and that stirring production – based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same title, with a book by Terrance McNally and music and lyrics Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, respectively – starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and at the time a little known Audra McDonald.

When it transferred to Broadway, a year later, “Ragtime” led that year’s Tony Award line-up with 13 nominations, winning for original score, book, and orchestrations, as well as a earning a trophy for McDonald as best featured actress.

Since then, this critic has reviewed four other stagings of “Ragtime,” all produced in various size houses – from medium venues to a small, intimate theatre – and none has disappointed, with each having unique virtues.

Now another version of this masterful musical has hit the boards in Southern California. Brought to us by the Chance Theater, this two-act, cast of 19 extravaganza, offering over 30 song (with remarkable musical direction by Robyn Manion, leading a six piece orchestra) and dance routines (exquisite choreography provided by Kelly Todd), is pointedly directed by Casey Stangl.

Set in the early 1900s, “Ragtime” is an American epic that dares to traverse ethnic and class lines to explore the complicated issues of the American story. One group of well-heeled white people residing in New Rochelle, New York is represented by archetypal characters known as Mother and Father (Rachel Olivers Catalano displaying operatic vocal skills and Ron Hastings embracing intense vocals and characterizations — both as father and also as Henry Ford). They have a son, Edgar (called Little Boy in the program and Brendan Knox makes the utmost in his role as the show’s nominal narrator), and Mother’s adult brother (known as Younger Brother and played with naive resonance by Joseph Bricker). But their idyllic world becomes disturbed with the onset of European immigrants and the presence of African Americans in their midst.

One day, after Father has left on year-long an adventure with Admiral Perry, Mother discovers a black infant buried in the garden of her ample home. The child is rescued and the birth mother is discovered. The baby was abandoned by its mother, Sarah (the soulful Jennifer Talton) but Mother assures authorities that she will take full responsibility for both mother and child.

An African American piano player named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is the father of Sarah’s child (an impressive and powerful performance by baritone Dony Wright), and he makes every effort to do the honorable thing. Sarah, however, is reluctant to accept Coalhouse’s overtures. And when an act of violent racism intercedes the plot takes a stark turn.

Meanwhile, Tateh and his child, Little Girl (Wyn Moreno and Rebeka Hoblik each add gripping human interest to “Ragtime’s” dynamic plot), are do-or-die European arrivals. Tateh’s belief in the American Dream is what keeps him and his child on the road to success and perhaps assimilation.

With the story swirling around these groups, intersecting their lives and coloring a uniquely American pallet of diversity and division, we hear songs that resonate with heartache, ambition and exhilaration. Musical numbers such as the inspiring “Journey On,” the charming and disarming “Henry Ford,” the amusing “What a Game,” and the affecting title song “Ragtime,” make “Ragtime: The Musical” a visual and aural treasure trove of entertainment and insight.

Historic characters and well employed to enrich and enliven the plot’s trajectory. We see vaudeville personality Evelyn Nesbit (a charming Sarah Pierce); magician Harry Houdini (an endearing Matt Takahashi); anarchist Emma Goldman (a virulent and compelling Bryce Hamilton); industrialist J.P. Morgan (a commanding interpretation by Glenn Koppel); and Brooker T. Washington (a convincing Jabriel Shelton).

With an abundance of dramatic conflict, a musical rousing musical score and production values that are unimpeachable (including a scenic design by Christopher Scott Murillo that transforms from a modern-day transet station that quickly transfers into a location from a century ago, and with imaginative prop designs created by Danthi Tran), the Chance’s mounting of “Ragtime” is a notable and honorable achievement. It’s a must see for musical aficionados and American history buffs.

Past here is portrayed as prologue. As the lyric of the title song says”…it was the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning in riches and rags and in rhythm and rhyme. The people called it Ragtime.” Does this sound familiar? It’s the same old song, only in this century it’s being sung to a slightly different tune.

 “Ragtime: The Musical” continues on the Cripe Stage of the Chance Theater through Aug. 11.

The Chance is located at 5522 East La Palma Avenue. For reservations, call (888)455-4212. For online ticketing, show times and other details, visit www.ChanceTheater.com.




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