Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles’ sensational revival of Ragtime The Musical is the kind of production they say “can’t be done,” and yet, miracle of miracles, they’ve done it. One of the most truly epic shows ever to have filled a Broadway stage, the original production featured a cast of 50. MTLA’s production scales that down somewhat (the program lists 37 performers) but even so, merely to fit those three dozen actors on the Hudson Backstage Theatre’s stage (plus a 10-piece orchestra and conductor) seems nigh on impossible, let alone have them move, interact, even dance.  But they’ve done it.  Yes, indeed, they’ve done it!

For those who may not have caught Ragtime in its previous local incarnations (it had its world premiere at the late lamented Shubert in 1997, and was more recently revived in big stage productions in Thousand Oaks in 2004 and in Long Beach in 2006), Ragtime takes us back 100 years to a time of historic change in the United States. The country was divided between the haves (the super-rich like Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, both of whom are supporting characters in Ragtime) and the have-nots (African Americans and European immigrants).  Though the haves wanted to believe, as they sing in Ragtime’s opening number, that “there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants,” people like Ragtime’s fictional “Father,” “Mother,” “Younger Brother,” and “Little Boy” were soon to find out otherwise. Mother takes in an African American baby found in her garden, and later the child’s unwed mother Sarah. Younger brother becomes inspired by anarchist Emma Goldman, and not long after joins Sarah’s lover, musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., in the forced takeover of the Morgan Library.  And Mother’s life eventually becomes intertwined with those of immigrant Tateh and his young daughter.  

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, Ragtime The Musical (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) manages to be both epic and personal, and the virtually unheard of feat of presenting it in a 99-seat venue works for both, thanks in great measure to the Herculean work of director Zeke Rettman. Being seated only feet away from three dozen actors singing the rousing opening number or the stirring “Till We Reach That Day” or the grand finale reprise of “Wheels Of Your Dream” is akin to sitting close-up to a widescreen Hollywood blockbuster with Dolby surround sound.  At the same time, the small theater intimacy of the Hudson makes Ragtime’s personal stories (Coalhouse’s efforts to win Sarah back, Tateh and his daughter’s first steps towards becoming Americans, Mother’s growing disillusionment in her marriage) more affecting than they could ever be on a big CLO stage.

Flaherty’s exquisite music has probably seldom sounded better than it does as performed by MTLA’s vocally gifted principals (Joe Montgomery as Father, Megan Johnson Briones as Mother, Aaron Jacobs as Younger Brother, Jon Jon Briones as Tateh, Josie Yount as Evelyn Nesbitt, and Eduardo Enrikez as Harry Houdini), and though in some cases the acting is not at the level of the singing, the quibble is minor compared to the overall achievement.  Child actors Michael Arnold as Little Boy and Danielle Soibelman as Little Girl prove themselves consummate professionals at a very ripe age.  Adam Mayfield (Willie Conklin), Mario Di Gregorio (Grandfather) and David Edward Perry (Brooker T. Washington) provide excellent support, and Amy K. Murray is an imposing and inspiring Emma Goldman.

If this production could be said to “belong” to any of the actors, it would most certainly be to the all-around breathtaking work of Kevin Yarbrough as Coalhouse Morgan and Rachae Thomas as Sarah. Their duets of “Wheels Of A Dream” and “Sarah Brown Eyes” are about as beautifully sung and acted as they come, as are Thomas’ “Your Daddy’s Son” and Yarbrough’s “Gettin’ Ready Rag.”  

It would be nearly impossible to list all of Ragtime’s memorable moments, but Yount’s sassy “Crime Of The Century” (wheeee!), the exquisite “New Music,” Briones’ jaunty “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc.” and his lilting “Gliding,” Briones’ and real-life wife Johnson Briones’ touching “Our Children,” and Johnson Briones’ stirring “Back To Before” couldn’t be better performed. Murray and Jacobs shine in two of the evening’s most moving numbers, “The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square” and “He Wanted To Say.” In a lighter vein, there’s the baseball inspired “What A Game,” sung by the male ensemble with much simulated spitting. “Ptooey!”

Several fine dance numbers including “The Gettin’ Ready Rag” and “Atlantic City” merit kudos for choreographer Stephanie Simpson and her talented dancers. Under the musical direction of Kelly L. Dodson, the voices of Ragtime’s ensemble blend in gorgeous harmony.  Conductor Greg Haake leads an excellent onstage 10-piece orchestra, which in the Hudson sounds twice as big, with high marks due to sound designer Fernando Vasquez for insuring that voices raised in song are not overpowered by musicians.  The set design (by Oscar Arevalo, Rettman, and Carl Ruoff) is mostly successful in situating the action in Ragtime’s various locales (the homes of the rich, the ghettos of the poor) and silhouetted figures behind a center stage screen (a fine lighting design by Jeffrey Porter) are used effectively in several scenes.  Rosalie Alvarez’s costuming (and what a challenge that must have been) makes the show look like a million dollars.

The production is not without its occasional problems. It is sometimes unclear where a scene is set, and Ragtime neophytes may not realize that Coalhouse is behind the wheel of his Model T when he is twice stopped by hooligans. The devastating incident which precedes the Act 1 finale happens too quickly, and the words “She’s got a gun” were unheard by my guest, who was unfamiliar with the story and therefore didn’t understand why what happened happened.

Still, the plusses in this production make any caveat seem minor by comparison.  No more is this true than in Rettman’s staging of Ragtime’s opening number, which climaxes with upper class citizens, African Americans, and immigrants coming face to face for the first time, our close proximity to them making their acute discomfort palpable.

Last night’s standing room only audience rose cheering to their feet as the lights went down on the final notes of “Wheels Of A Dream.” I recommend getting tickets now, as Ragtime is likely to be selling out performance after performance once reviews and word-of-mouth get around. Musical Theatre Of Los Angeles has set the bar for their future productions high indeed. Kudos to MTLA founder/CEO Bonnie McMahan, director Rettman, and the entire cast and crew for this triumph.

Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
September 20, 2008

                                                           Photo: Katrina Rennells

Ensemble members:  Mike Abramson, Joey Acuna, Jr., Steven Anglin, Jr., Dwayne Arvinger, Kelly Dodson, Clayton Farris, Doug Gabrielle, Greg Hardash, Alison Jones, Ali Kreindler, Janet Krupin, Constance Lopez, Kaja Martin, Leslie Morerro, James Petrillo, Katrina Rennells, Nico Rennells, Kelly J. Roberts, Arthur L. Ross, Mindy Ruoff, Mimi  Snow, Aydrea Ten Bosch, Aaron Wong

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