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"Ragtime," show #842

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is running an intimately cast but mightily performed production of the modern epic musical, Ragtime. I use the term “epic” to define its sweeping score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Terrence McNally’s book which gives nuanced texture to its historical figures (fictional and non), with the finishing touch being the stellar direction by Robert Kelley. My appreciation for this production goes beyond acknowledgement of the talented cast, design, and staging but rather swings right into the Wow! factor. Consider me Wow-ed!

(Company of Ragtime; Photo credit: Kevin Berne)

I had the pleasure of seeing this production with my wife, who had never seen the show but only heard the songs I have—nicely--forced her to listen to over the years of our relationship. Her comment at intermission was, “I’m liking it. But I don’t know who the lead is, like, exactly who to follow.” This was not a negative criticism by any means and, in fact, informed precisely what I relished with Kelley’s fifteen-person cast in a show usually staged with more than twice that many: the focus was given to the story, not necessarily the humans onstage. This allows for audiences to see how relevant this tale, set at the turn of the 20th century, is to today’s issues surrounding racial divides, gender roles, and family values. This cast delivers the story with incredible commitment, deep understanding of their roles in service to the script, and sublime vocals.

(Iris Beaumier (pictured as Sarah) and Nkrumah Gatling (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.); Photo credit: Kevin Berne)

Framing the storytelling structure Kelley has devised is set well by Jackson Janssen and Sydney Walker Freeman as Little Boy and Little Girl, respectively. Their giddy entrance, opening of a book launches into the soaring opening number with impressive pacing and establishing of the multi-role tracks the majority of the cast delivers throughout the performance. Nkrumah Gatling is a charismatically grounded Coalhouse Walker, Jr., exuding confidence in Coalhouse’s decision-making and unending love for Sarah and their child, all while bringing his gorgeous timbre to the songs. His leadership of “The Gettin’ Ready Rag” is soulful in the lament and energetic in the joyous upbeat section; his “Wheels of a Dream” duet opposite a dynamite Iris Beaumier as Sarah (who doubles as a Harlem Woman) is sung with abandon and delicious harmonies. Noel Anthony’s turn as Father is commanding as the patriarch of the New Rochelle family, and gives excellent voice in his portions of “Journey On” and “New Music.” Anthony’s comic turn of shock in “What a Game!” gives a nice break to the act two drama alongside a great ensemble of baseball fan hecklers. Understudy Marie Finch played Mother the evening I attended, and gave an engaging quirkiness to her Mother, a choice that made her more human and more empathetic for audiences to enjoy. Her devotion to the role mirrors Mother’s devoted journey to Sarah and her baby, making for a well-acted “Journey On” trio contribution and a tenderly emotional “Back to Before.”

(L to R: Sean Okuniewicz (pictured as Mother's Younger Brother), Noel Anthony (pictured as Father), Jackson Janssen (Little Boy), Christine Dwyer (Mother), Colin Thomson (pictured as Grandfather); Photo credit: Kevin Berne)

Melissa WolfKlain and Keith Pinto deliver superb supporting performances as Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini, respectively, portraying historically accurate and charming entertainer pop while teaming up for a fun “Atlantic City.” In double-duty form, Pinto gives his Willy Conklin every ounce of despicable allure. Sean Okuniewicz is a passionately earnest Mother's Younger Brother, giving the audience great depiction of the character from E.L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name, and hits all the glistening notes in his leading of “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square.” Suzanne Grodner gives a strong performance as Emma Goldman, the noted rabble-rouser of protesting fame, with a swell vocal turn in “He Wanted to Say.” Michael Gene Sullivan is a compellingly genial Booker T. Washington, and gives his slew of speeches with an alluring cadence. Leslie Ivy, as Sarah’s Friend, leads a phenomenal “Till We Reach That Day” to conclude the first act on a soaring note. Colin Thomson is a featured standout as the moody Grandfather and a jovial Henry Ford, both in song and in scene. Leo Ash Evans brings the paternal love and passion for success to Tateh, the story’s central immigrant character. Evans’s vocal energy is well-suited for his trio in “Journey On,” a tender “Nothing Like the City,” and an intimately gripping duet with Finch in “Our Children.” His marathon delivery of “Buffalo Nickle Photoplay, Inc.” is a patter-song lover’s delight, moving a mile-a-minute and brimming with anecdote-delivering vigor.

(Company of Ragtime; Photo credit: Kevin Berne)

Gerry McIntyre’s choreography alongside Kelley’s staging makes for an abundance of splendid stage pictures and dance turns, the latter led by a terrific Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. as Harlem Man. With just fifteen cast members, each company number gives a slender visual where every move counts and every move is true and polished. William Liberatore leads a fine orchestra, pumping the score with stellar musicianship and support of the cast’s vocals. Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting design is a technical standout, as it gives the stage grandeur when needed and intimacy as called for among Wilson Chin’s stately, functional scenic design. I implore you to see this Ragtime, and not just because this show doesn’t come around that often, but because Kelley and company are doing it justice. Go see this show!

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