You would think that the musical version of E.L. Doctorow’s celebrated novel "Ragtime" would offer a rewarding musical experience. Epic in scope, with its universal themes, richly human and accessible characters, the novel does truly sing.
Multi-award winning playwright Terrence McNally fashioned a well-pointed libretto, tightly focusing in on the novel’s core characters while still maintaining the feel of the novelist’s sprawling saga. With just a few notes from the piano, Stephen Flaherty’s exceptional score does whisk us back to the turn of the last century with a graceful and magic touch. And Lynne Ahrens lyrics prove a perfect match to Flaherty’s score as they sweep majestic from the opening montage to the evening’s signature tune, “Wheels of a Dream.”
From the biting social satire of “The Crime of the Century” and “What a Game!” to the powerful emotional ballads in “Your Daddy’s Son” and “Back to Before” the score is in perfect sync with the novel’s core themes and essence. But oddly, the terrific score and the able libretto don’t quite coalesce, leaving this musical outing feeling forced and very presentational. And even Park Playhouse’s stunningly good production cannot completely mask that fact.
Balancing the story of three families in their pursuit of the American dream at the turn of the 20th century and dotted with cameos of celebrities and barons of the day, "Ragtime" is a daunting tale to tell. The cast of characters includes a wealthy white family consisting of Father (Edward Miskie), Mother (Molly Rose McGrath), their son Edgar (Garrett Collins) and Mother’s so-to-be radical brother (Alex Kunz). And then there’s the romance of a fiery Harlem ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker (A.D. Weaver) and the object his of affection, Sarah (Mariah Lyttle). And finally we meet an enterprising Jewish immigrant (Samuel Druhora) and his young daughter (Ava Papaleo) as they struggle to escape the trap of tenement life.
"Ragtime" follows the fates of these three families as they intersect in a country on the cusp of major social change.
Director Michael LoPorto, musical director Brian Axford and choreographer Ashley-Simone Kirchner have assembled a top- notch cast – one of the best in recent memory – and have created a handsome and impressive production. With brilliant vocals, clean and exciting movement and a great band the production is a rousing success chock full of some fantastic performances.
Weaver balances just the right amount of mischief and madness in his take on Coalhouse, engaging the audience completely with his warm and rich baritone. His final ballad of the evening, “Make Them Hear You” is spectacular and his duet with Lyttle on the aforementioned “Dream” is phenomenally good.
Flawless may be the best word to describe Lyttle’s rendering of “Your Daddy’s Son,” as she brings all of the character’s emotional turmoil full front without overplaying it. Druhora delivers an exceptionally moving and impassioned performance as Tateh. The song of love and connection to his daughter, “Gliding," is touching as is his duet with McGrath in act two, “Our Children."
McGrath has never been better. It’s not just her dazzling vocal on “Back to Before” that impresses; it is also that she is able capture Mother’s goodness with such ease and comfort without cliché – not an easy thing to do -- and McGrath handles it with tender grace. Mikayla Agrella, as cause celeb Evelyn Nesbitt, proves a comic gem in the wonderfully staged “Crime of the Century.” Benita Zahn wonderfully stokes the flames of social change as the militant Emma Goldman and the show’s first act closer packs a punch, notably due to Antonia Brown’s knockout vocal.
But as good as this production is, "Ragtime" has a fatal flaw. Too often the show descends into “toxic moments.” At times, it appears as if the authors suddenly realize they have failed in creating an emotionally effective evening around the theme of the piece. So they have a cast member – or entire ensemble – come down to the footlights and sing AT the audience the theme and message – in case we missed it -- and then clumsily tug (or in this case, yank) our collective heartstrings by buttoning up each over-reverential ballad with a singer (or the ensemble) -- holding a very long note as the orchestra swells. Manipulative and lazy, this emotional assault device is used non-stop in "Ragtime" to the point of distraction, and sadly, considering the weight and importance of the musical’s subject matter, it is a major dramaturgical problem.
But it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, take away from the fact that this is a brilliant production and a crowning artistic achievement for the company.
WHERE: Park Playhouse, Washington Park, Albany
WHEN: Through July 29
HOW MUCH: Reserved seating: $16 - $24; seating hillside: free
MORE INFO: 518-434-0776, parkplayhouse.org