This, a not-to-be-missed production of “RAGTIME: The Musical” now playing at the elegant historic Pasadena Playhouse from Feb 5- Mar 3, 2019. RAGTIME is based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name and adapted by Terrence McNally genius. Stephen Flaherty’s memorable music haunts us even after the curtain goes down. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics so succinctly describe the delusions of the White Upper Class in the Prologue: “Ladies with parasols, fellas with tennis balls, there were gazebos and there were no Negros… and there were no Immigrants.” As goes one of the lines of the opening number.
Along with this is the visually beautiful staging and direction by David Lee, Director and Mark Esposito, Choreographer (originally Directed by Frank Galati and choreographed. by Graciela Daniele) establishes groups of each contingent, first freely moving, then chance encounters and backing away from confrontation as the circle gets larger and more complex. The opening is a visual metaphor for the chaotic process of melding cultures in this complex country.
It then unfolds and continues to be a moving, emotional and well-crafted commentary at the turn of the 20th century which echoes even today. It is an overview of the clash and assimilation of three prominent cultures.
Their singular stories begin with the established upper class, focusing on a well- heeled White American family from New Rochelle, New York. “Mother” is played by the lovely talented Shannon Warne and “Father” is aptly performed by Zachary Ford. To him, she is his, and to be treated as all who cannot fend for themselves, yet she finds her own sense of self and eventual love.
The next is the life of a Harlem musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., so powerful and brilliantly played by Clifton Duncan who in his own right, for the time being, has ‘made good.’ Bryce Charles’ intensely sensitive and touching portrayal of Sarah, Coalhouse’s lover, changes his life and future. His vocal and emotional, “Make Them Hear you” tears at the heart and brings a hush to the entire audience. Their story represents not only the vitality but the voice of the African American. At this time, this group is living through the greatest ‘Negro’ migration, from South to North, that the country has ever seen.
The third is Immigrants from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe who came in record numbers to find work and escape persecution. Mark Ginsburg’s heartrending portrayal of Tatah, a Jewish Artist from Latvia and his young daughter represent those who want to build a new life just as record numbers of immigrants are crowding,10 to15 in a room, in a hot tenement building, working in sweat shops or trying to find or create work.
The set, designed by Tom Buderwitz, so clearly represents this tremendous flux. The set is made up of packing crates piled over a story high. It gives the impression of impermanence in a moving chaotic world. Playfully the boxes have secret compartments that open and shut, at one point revealing Houdini, in one of his famous positions. The costumes by Kate Bergh, are in calming creams and earth tones, drab olive/brown and gray/blacks along with intensely bright colors.
The cast is powerful, with such illustrious characters making appearances, like Harry Houdini (Benjamin Schrader) who appears and disappears throughout the show, Emma Goldman (Valerie Perri) who clearly is leading the challenge to the status quo, with JP Morgan (Tom G. McMahon) and Booker T Washington’s (Dedrick Bonner) warnings to put a lid on misbehavior. Henry Ford (Ryan Dietz), who changed the face of the working world. The sparkling and naughty Evelyn Nesbit (Katherine McDonough) who is clearly a survivor when women often had little power to survive on their own,
RAGTIME was clearly Tony Award material, being nominated for 12 Tonys for Its Broadway Production. It opened in Toronto, on Dec. 8 1996, then going on to the Shubert Theatre in Los Angeles on June 1997, and making its Broadway Debut on January 18, 1998. The original cast had over 50 performers which included the Tony nominated Brian Stokes Mitchell, Peter Friedman, Audra McDonald, and the late Marin Mazzie, the original Mother. The Pasadena revival has dedicated this run to Ms. Mazzie, who passed away September 13, 2018.
This Pasadena version of the show, with just half the cast does not suffer in its more intimate translation. In fact, it takes a closer more emotional and, in some cases, more shocking look at the relationships and events at that time. It is a poignant echo of our 21st century concerns, and reminiscent of America’s fight for its own identity. This production is such a timely gift and worth seeing. If you have not seen Ragtime, get your tickets now, since the run closes on March 3.
For information and tickets, click here.
Featured image: Ragtime Ensemble – Photo by Nick Agro/Pasadena Playhouse