Theater Review: ‘Ragtime’ sings, dances to a timely tune at Pa. Shakespeare Fest
“Ragtime” is a sprawling musical that defies description. By turns, it’s three musicals in one, with interlocking storylines that mix historical figures with fictional characters.
It’s big. It’s brash. It’s bold.
“Ragtime” is also profoundly relevant to contemporary societal problems in the United States.
And in the hands of Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze, who has directed PSF’s season-opening musicals, including “Evita,” 2017; “West Side Story,” 2016; “Les Miserables,” 2015; “Fiddler On The Roof,” 2014; “Oklahoma!,” 2013, “Ragtime” is yet another PSF blockbuster.
Razze directs “Ragtime” with a superb sense of showmanship, astounding production values, and a cast of lead performers who seemingly stepped from the Broadway stage onto the Main Stage of Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, where “Ragtime,” which opens PSF’s 27th annual season, continues through July 1.
Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally, for which he received a Tony Award for best book of a musical in 1998 (the original Broadway production received 13 Tony nominations), “Ragtime” doesn’t mince words. The N-Word is heard several times in the context of turn-of-the-century (as in the 20th century) racism when the United States was more an ethnic alphabet soup than a melting pot.
In the PSF production, seen opening night June 15 for this review, “Ragtime” is a fantastical, jaw-dropping, engrossing three-hour tableau (including intermission) of the American scene: an upper middle class New Rochelle, N.Y., caucasian family whose fortune is based on a fireworks factory; an immigrant entrepreneur who turns silouettes into silent films, and who would do anything to not be separated from his daughter, and a Harlem piano player of ragtime music who wants his life to matter, too.
In the Original Costume Design by Santo Loquasto, with Costume Coordinator Courtney Irizarry, the ice-cream hues of the white family contrast with the purple and blues of the black Harlem residents, and the drab gray of the mostly Jewish immigrants fresh off the boat.
The set, by Scenic Designer Steve TenEyck, is framed with “steel” that effectively works with Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen, for the 11 scenes in Act One and seven scenes in Act Two, inlcluding a New York harbor, vaudeville theater, Ford assembly line, railroad station, New Rochelle house, and Morgan Library, with appropriate scenery drops, chairs, desks and assorted props, including a battery-powered Model T Ford replica driven on and off the stage.
The 15-piece orchestra, conducted by Nathan Diehl, is spirited and lively, sounding like a jazz repertoire ensemble that is having too much fun throughout the some 19 songs in Act One, and 15 songs in Act Two (including three reprises). Music Director J. Bennett Durham gets a clear and distinct sound from the cast’s voices.
It’s all brought to life by 40 extraordinary performers, right from the start of the Scott Joplinesque opening number, “Ragtime,” by the entire Company, which showcases Choreographer Stephen Casey’s work, and throws it down ectastically, putting the audience on notice this is one musical to be reckoned with.
Carly Hueston Amburn (Evelyn Nesbit), Mother’s Younger Brother (James Stabp) and the Ensemble ratchet up the song and dance with “The Crime Of The Century,” an over-the-top number in the best sense.
Nkrumah Gatling (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), who has incredible charisma and a voice that reaches the back rows, and the Ensemble roll it out even further with “Gettin’ Ready Rag.” Gatling extends a mournful but hopeful plea with “Make Them Hear You.”
Destinee Rea (Sarah), who has a wonderful stage presence, renders a tender “Your Daddy’s Son” with a stunning voice that will melt your heart.
Bryant Martin (Father), Brandi Burkhardt (Mother), Stabp, Gatling, Rea and the Ensemble combine for “New Music,” the show’s catchiest and most emblematic number.
Burkhardt, whose voice is extraordinarily beautiful, captivates with the ruminative “Back To Before.”
You wonder when Gatling and Rea will get together and “Wheels Of A Dream” doesn’t disappoint with their dynamic duet. They join in lovely harmony again for “Sarah Brown Eyes.”
There are more songs and numbers that are delightfully entertaining.
Numerous actors impress: Rod Singleton (Booker T. Washington), Samuel Druhora (Tateh), Freddie Kimmel (Harry Houdini), Dave Scheffler (J.P. Morgan), Michele Ragusa (Emma Goldman), Jack Doyle (Henry Ford) and Richard White (Grandfather).
“Ragtime” spans an era in American history not unlike the hands of a piano player tickling the black and white keys. It’s a stereoscopic view of a time then and now that bears repeated viewings. Don’t miss it.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)