Musicals about worlds, cultures and consciousness colliding have little better base material than American history. Ragtime, the musical based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow, tells a 20th century story through the eyes of a Harlem musician, a privileged matriarch, and an Eastern European immigrant. Their politely separated words collide when Sarah, an African-American woman previously charmed by Coalhouse Walker, the charming ragtime musician, leaves an infant in the garden of Mother’s upscale home in New Rochelle. As cultures clash, Mother learns that people from different cultures are not that different after all, Coalhouse learns that the path to equality is long and barbarous, and Tateh the immigrant learns that there is at least some truth to the American Dream.
Separate Cultures Harmonize Instead of Clash
HE SAID: If you love the robust choral sound and the pulse of fiery revolution of Les Miserables but have always found it a little too French (in a British sort of way) for your liking, than Ragtime is the show for you. From the first song, with the chorus booming in flawless harmony, you know that you are in for an epic ride musically and what you find in the end is that the music perfectly highlights the brilliantly crafted script. The stories are woven together intricately and yet there is very little force evident in those connections. This show for me is an incredible piece of art.
SHE SAID: I agree with you that Ragtime is a spectacular creation of musical theater. For me, the music is the primary contributor to its moving message. The music is touching, compelling, and swells with just the right emotion and style to tell the variety of individual stories that are told in the piece. As the individuals fade into and burst out of their social groups, the music fades and blooms along with them, getting us to know each one, and their world, just a little bit better before the next change. In this production the choral sound is incredible, and the musical direction by David Nehls leads a capable orchestra and ensemble to one moving musical moment after another.
Vocalists Conquer Iconic Music
HE SAID: As I said, from the opening number, you know that you are in for a powerful vocal score and I don’t think I have experienced such a robust ensemble sound in a show produced locally. It was unbelievable. The blend in every number – from the stunning opening to the moving triad “Journey On” to the inspirational “Wheels of a Dream” – was immaculate. The solo numbers were hit and miss with me. While some were incredible – Meghan Van De Hey singing “Back to Before” for example – but others, while nicely sung, struggled with the performance/acting.
SHE SAID: The ensemble sounds were definitely the strongest of the evening. It’s hard to point out any noticeable flaws in any of the solo performances – all were incredibly vocally strong, singing incredible music. Only a few of them, however, really rose above the incredibly high bar set by the company, and produced that intangible, soaring, goose-bump inducing quality where you truly forget that you’re watching a musical and you believe that if ever that person was in that situation there would be no other choice than to sing that very song. Wayne Kennedy gave one of those incredibly touching performance as Tateh, and I also enjoyed Van De Hey. Tyrone L. Robinson as Coalhouse, recently called into the part due to sudden illness, hit that soaring quality once or twice, and I suspect as he settles into the run he’ll find a few more moments like those. I was not able to fully connect to Christiana Acosta Robinson’s performance as Sarah. Although she sang capably and passionately, something about her presence seemed a little strange to me, which kept me at a bit of a distance from her character.
Robinson Climbs Mountain in a Day
HE SAID: My main critique of Tyrone L. Robinson’s performance was that I was left wanting to see more of the beats and clearer intentions throughout the song “Make Them Hear You” as a way of breaking up the repetitive lyrics and giving life to each phrase. Aside from that one song, I found his voice like velvet in one moment and then powerful enough to shake the rafters the next. A lot of audiences have some inexplicable issues with understudies. I saw one man shift in his seat and mouth expletives when they announced that the understudy was playing Coalhouse. I am glad to say that same man was later gave a well-deserved standing ovation for Robinson, who pretty much won him over by “Wheels of a Dream.”
SHE SAID: It was lovely to feel the audience rally around Robinson, his character, and the entire story that was being told. The design elements contributed well to the storytelling. The costumes (by Clare Henkel) were especially pleasing and, and along with the turning panels upstage, they artfully showcased each of the characters in the story. While the higher levels downstage provided a good space for several of the scenes, a few of the actors in long skirts seemed a bit cautious when navigating the steep stairs that lead to them. I also didn’t quite understand why the earthy, soft tones on the set were combined with the black, gridded floor. It wasn’t so confusing that I was distracted during the action, but when I sat and stared at the set a bit during intermission, it seemed incongruous. But again, the design elements, performances and music mostly melded together very well.
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Arvada Center Brings New Syncopation to Beautiful Story
THEY SAID: The Arvada Center is the first to do a production of the revival version of Ragtime. Originally done at the Kennedy Center, and then brought to Broadway in 2009, the revival offered a more “steamlined” version of the show, but closed quickly after opening due to the massive weekly operating costs of such a large cast and orchestra. This production feels lighter with its sparse set design and while the cast might be larger, it never feels overwhelming. What the cast does bring is an incredibly powerful sound to this magnificent score and truly emotional moments to a script rooted in our own history. Its a well-executed production of a well crafted story that, at its best, will touch the most human parts of each of us.
For a full history and plot synopsis of Ragtime, see the wikipedia article. Ragtime plays through October 2 at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities. Click the banner above for tickets and more information.