Saturday, February 07, 2009

New Review: Ragtime

For Back Stage. Presented by the Astoria Performing Arts Center. I was gobsmacked by the quality, quite frankly. But read:

Here's the tease:

The social and theatrical tapestries woven in the musical Ragtime looked sprawling -- and not in a good way -- when it first opened on Broadway in 1998. Partly to blame was the hulking size of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, now the Hilton Theatre. Partly to blame, too, was Ragtime's narrative overambitiousness, especially as adapted from E.L. Doctorow's novel by Terrence McNally (book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and Stephen Flaherty (music).

Ragtime's Achilles heel is the excessively episodic nature of its tale of monied WASPs, Jewish immigrants, and African Americans at the dawn of the 20th century. Fortunately, director Tom Wojtunik's revival, ingeniously staged in the transformed gym of a Queens church, makes what was distant and didactic on Broadway seem wonderfully intimate.

The audience sits in five sections -- two on the side, three facing the stage -- creating aisles useful for generating that environmental feeling. In addition, the main three sections are set perhaps 15 feet away from the stage, creating an additional playing space that Wojtunik leverages to dynamic effect.

With no fourth wall and its many intense, vivid scenes, this Ragtime demands a different kind of emotional effort from the actors. For example, when Coalhouse Walker Jr. (D. William Hughes) and Sarah (Janine Ayn Romano) launch into "Wheels of a Dream," Ragtime's most incandescent number, it's the combining of the actors' voices that appeals, of course, but also Walker's car sitting three feet before the audience. Indeed, Walker's car had been assembled earlier before the audience's eyes -- a triumph of Michael P. Kramer's streamlined and fascinating set design.

For outer-borough theatre, that is one of many surprisingly stirring moments. Watch poor Tateh (Mark Gerrard), the Jewish émigré, rising to riches as his tale mingles with that of Mother (Anna Lise Jensen), the WASP who takes in Sarah and her newborn at Ragtime's start. And I loved how the array of historical personalities -- the anarchic bent of Emma Goldman (Carmel Javaher), the ninny femininity of Evelyn Nesbit (Stacie Bono), the brash prestidigitation of Harry Houdini (Jonathan Gregg) -- are played by the actors not as message carriers for the authors but as fully formed people, individuals as immersed in the turbulent scrum of their times as the main characters, despite being fictional, are themselves.

If you listen, you can hear the errant flat note, and Wojtunik might remind his backstage crew that dresses coming off hangers can be heard if you're not careful. Listen closer, though, and you'll hear Ragtime reborn.

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