Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: RAGTIME Revival Couldn't Come at a Better Time

Bryce Charles and Clifton Duncan. Photo by Jenny Graham

How do you scale down an epic musical like Ragtime for a smaller stage and a different time? When it opened at the Shubert Theatre in Century City in 1997, the cast numbered nearly fifty, the same as it would for its Broadway debut later that year. The stage was enormous and the production filled every inch of it. I still remember how the sheer volume of the choral numbers gave me chills.

For the revival at Pasadena Playhouse, director David Lee has a different spin. Instead of going big, he goes smaller - not tiny, but everything is scaled down by half to fit the Playhouse. Using twenty actors who cover multiple roles on a more compact, compartmentalized set, he offers us a view of early American history from the storage boxes of a museum. (Think Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum franchise but serious.)

A miniature replica of Father and Mother’s house on the hill in New Rochelle emerges from the top of a stack of crates. Down below, a tiny model of the ship that Father and Admiral Byrd will set sail on for their adventure to the North Pole slips out. And, in between, a swing drops from the ceiling, a piano rolls on from the wings and a coffin sinks into the floor. Tom Buderwitz’s scenic design is full of smart visual shorthand that pops out of the shadows when Jared A. Sayeg hits them with light. (His transition marking Tateh’s arrival with his daughter is simple but stunning.)

Photo by Nick Agro

In this semi-Vaudevillian structure, the realism of the story’s vignettes unfold. All that’s missing are the implied subtitles: Mother Finds Baby Buried in Flower Garden, Coalhouse Goes to New Rochelle, Immigrant Almost Loses Daughter in Riot. With the focus squarely on the characters, the melting pot of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century springs to life and, along with them, their hopes, heartaches and challenges.

It’s an intriguing idea to look backward from the lens of today only to realize how little we’ve actually accomplished in our progress as human beings. Immigrants are still looked down upon, racism continues to rear its ugly head, and the benefits of white privilege are still guarded by those who fear change. Terrence McNally weaves these themes together in his adaptation of E.L Doctorow’s novel for the stage, musicalized so beautifully by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. No one will argue that the score is absolutely gorgeous.

Photo by Jenny Graham

Mother (Shannon Warne) quietly struggles to find purpose in her comfortable but sheltered life while Father’s (Zachary Ford) adventures and strict adherence to the way things have always been reveal he is out of step with the changing world. Younger Brother (Dylan Saunders) is desperate for something to believe in and when his obsession with the bombshell Evelyn Nesbit (Katharine McDonough) ends in rejection, it is the anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Perri) who replaces the fire in his belly, setting him on a collision course with Coalhouse Walker (Clifton Duncan), a smooth-talking ragtime pianist and ladies’ man.

Coalhouse doesn’t know his sweetheart Sarah (Bryce Charles) has given birth to his son, only that she has disappeared. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Tateh (Marc Ginsburg) a Jewish widower and his Little Girl (Iara Nemirovsky) arrive fresh off the boat, clutching their dreams as tightly as each other. As their stories begin to converge, this powerhouse of a show does what musical theatre does best - move you - in outrage, in frustration, and ultimately in a joyful affirmation of the future.

Several striking performances give fresh resonance to roles previously made famous by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie (Broadway’s original Coalhouse and Mother). Duncan’s thrilling anthem “Make Them Hear You,” which precedes his final moments on stage, rings with a dizzying depth of emotion and brings the production to an electrifying climax. If you have no other reason to see the show, see it for what he does with this number. It’s that good.

Beyond looking the part (
Kate Bergh’s costumes for Mother are exquisite, parasol and all) Warne anchors the show with grace and adds subtlety to a role that relies on the actress who plays it to fill in the subtext and make it sing. She does. Ginsburg’s dramatic turn as Tateh is some of the best work he’s done in Los Angeles and Dylan Saunders as Younger Brother makes his featured role one of the most memorable of the night. It’s another case of an actor getting inside the head of a character and giving the audience something they didn’t expect.

The monumental job of making the music soar goes to music director and conductor Darryl Archibald. Even though the Playhouse’s stage has been known to swallow the sound (and it does so occasionally in this production), the music still takes flight and delivers its emotional punch when it counts.

As a country, we will always be a patchwork of people coming together to make the most of our disparate parts. Even now, over a century later, we struggle to get it right. If Ragtime shows us anything about ourselves it is that there is work yet to be done. Pasadena Playhouse’s revival couldn’t come at a better time.

February 5 - March 9, 2019
Pasadena Playhouse
39 South El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
Tickets: 626-356-7529 or

L-R: Candace Washington, Clifton Duncan, Cornelius Jones Jr. and
Bryce Charles. Photo by Jenny Graham

Bryce Charles. Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Nick Agro

Clifton Duncan, Valerie Perri, and Dylan Saunders. Photo by Nick Agro

Marc Ginsburg. Photo by Jenny Graham

Candance Washington, Clifton Duncan, and Cornelius Jones Jr.
Photo by Jenny Graham

Photo by Jenny Graham

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