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Theater: Ragtime
2007-04-18

This article shared 3745 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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Playwright: Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens

At: Porchlight Music Theatre, 1225 W. Belmont

Phone: 773-327-5252; $30-$32

Runs through: May 27

By Jonathan Abarbanel

Ragtime, drawn from E. L. Doctorow's epic but pithy novel, may be the finest American musical of the last 25 years. Mixing historic characters—Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Admiral Perry—with fictional ones, Ragtime intertwines three storylines to synthesize the urban tensions of immigration, race, labor and technology that forged 20th-century America. Stephen Flaherty's beautifully-colored and symphonic score is inspired by Scott Joplin, honky-tonk, gospel, two-step and Broadway dazzle. Lynn Ahren's exemplary lyrics are intelligent, passionate, introspective and truly poetic. Terrence McNally's book is a model both of reduction and pinpoint expansion, carefully selecting the details to enlarge as song platforms.

By any standards of musical theater, Ragtime is huge and complex. The music can sweep the audience along in its rich emotions, providing you have the talent to do it justice. Porchlight Music Theatre does it justice, its reputation serving as a magnet that draws gifted newcomers and trusted veterans even as other large musicals compete for talent.

Musical director Eugene Dizon and his five instrumentalists have prepared miraculous orchestral reductions of the dazzling, full-orchestra originals. Adding a second keyboard, a second reed, trombone and trumpet to his usual three musicians, Dizon develops the full and varied sound Ragtime requires. Watch Dizon at work through the gauze that hides the band. Belying his sweet countenance, he drives his players and cast with forceful precision, unleashing the score's power both for soloists and the important choral episodes.

Although not entirely even as actors, the leads all have vocal range and strength: Jayson Brooks as stalwart Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Karla Beard as moody Sarah, Bil ( sic ) Ingraham as upright Father, Scott Sowinski as rebellious Mother's Younger Brother and, especially, Charissa Armon as patrician Mother and Aaron Graham as driven Tateh, whose scenes together really spark. The leads deliver the goods, unfolding the personal story of each character as well as the epic panorama.

Director L. Walter Stearns gives equal attention to the intimate and sweeping halves of the tale, astutely balancing big physical elements against emotional shadings. Stearns and choreographer Brenda Didier, who provides more musical staging than dance, deftly move the company of 21 so the stage never feels crowded and focus is precise.

He accomplishes this, in part, by a scenic design ( by Roy Hines ) that mostly keeps the three-quarter round thrust stage empty and uncluttered. Eminently practical but also neutral, it adds little flavor to the show, but is a necessary sacrifice to cast size. Visual display is left to lighting designer John Horan, who works warm wonders with limited lighting instrumentation, and Bill Morey's fine period costumes.

There's far more to discuss about Ragtime and this staging of it, if space allowed. There are a few quibbles but this production deserves overwhelming praise as Porchlight continues to spoil us. Go see it.


This article shared 3745 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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