Theatre Review: ‘Ragtime’ at MusicalFare Theatre

The cast of “Ragtime” at MusicalFare Theatre. Photo by Michael Walline.

If you’re even a passive musical theater fan, you certainly know the phenomenon that is “Ragtime”. The production running at MusicalFare shows the unfortunate reality that I’m sure motivated the decision to stage it: we need “Ragtime,” now more than ever.

. . .we need “Ragtime,” now more than ever.

The original Broadway production garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, winning for Book, Score, Orchestrations, and of course Audra McDonald’s third Tony award in four years. In the opening number, we meet Father and Mother, who live in a symbolic and literal “house on a hill” with their son Edgar, Grandfather (Mother’s father), and her Younger Brother. Then, we meet Coalhouse Walker Jr., the darling of the Harlem musical renaissance called ragtime. Finally, we meet immigrant Tateh and his little girl, coming to the “land of opportunity.” The story evolves from there, a weaving narrative full of emotion written by some of the best in the business (Ahrens & Flaherty’s score and Terrence McNally’s book have long been my favorite in the MT canon).

MusicalFare’s intimate performance space presents challenges with a show “Ragtime’s” magnitude, but as usual Chris Cavanagh is not to be deterred. His set is creative and simple, making good use of the space. Director Randall Kramer has created a clear vision for this reduced ensemble production, but Michael Walline’s choreography breathes life into the vision. As mentioned, the ensemble in this production is significantly reduced from the original Broadway, and even the 2009 revival, though the design and aesthetic match closely with that revival. The smaller ensemble does not lack in vocal power, and the most poignant moment of the evening comes in the Act One finale “Til We Meet That Day,” especially due to the soaring vocals of Alexandria Watts. They’re a strength of this production.

The principals of this production carry the show as they should. MusicalFare regular (the usher behind me very loudly reminded me) Marc Sacco is terrific in the role of Father, a difficult role at that. Stevie Jackson lives in a world of vaudeville as Evelyn Nesbit. Ricky Needham’s tenor is clear as a bell as Younger Brother, and he conveys the tortured soul that is Younger Brother with ease. Lorenzo Shawn Parnell and Dominique Kempf are vocally proficient, but we miss some of the passion that would indicate their history. Particularly impressive, however, are the turns of Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell and Kyle Baran as Mother and Tateh, respectively. Vogric-Hunnell’s take on “Back to Before” is worth the wait to get to it; her voice soars without feeling forced or artificial, and she earned a well-deserved ovation afterwards. Baran is emotionally connected to the material in a way that immediately draws the audience’s eye, he’s in his element for certain. Charmagne Chi, as is frequently the case, steals the show as Emma Goldman, and that isn’t at all a criticism. If anything, she proves how fit she is for this profession.

But the flaw with this production (and perhaps I’m more critical due to my affinity for “Ragtime”) is the orchestra, or in this case the lack thereof. Don’t get me wrong, the musicians are more than proficient. This score simply isn’t something you can justifiably reduce to two pianos and a percussionist and achieve the same effect. Many of the emotional moments in the show fall short without an orchestra. In addition, most of the tempos in this evening’s performance seemed rushed to the point of losing some of the acting moments. I lost out on one of the most powerful moments in the show, “Journey On,” because the trio of actors barely had time to get their phrases out. I’m not a musician by trade, and this is one man’s opinion, but the show seriously suffers due to lack of orchestra, more so than other MusicalFare productions with reduced orchestrations.

Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.

“Ragtime” runs until March 17, 2019 and is presented at MusicalFare Theatre. For more information, click here.