Theatre Review: RAGTIME at Arden Theatre Company

Arden Theatre Company’s mission is to “tell great stories by great storytellers” and Ragtime is a prime example of putting your money where your mouth is.  Although at first glance, I was hesitant about whether I would take to Arden’s reimagining, simply because it felt like walking into last season’s Once, albeit perplexed at times, I was pleasantly enticed and enthralled throughout the night.

In a recent interview for Philadelphia Gay News, Robi Hager who plays Younger Brother states:

“There’s a line in the show where Tateh, one of the Jewish immigrants, says to Emma Goldman, ‘I’m making art. Leave me alone, I’m not interested in politics.’ And Emma Goldman says that art is politics. That should always be the case. We’re in a very troublesome time in our country’s history, and we can’t rely on making art that’s just for entertainment purposes. Now is a time to create art that speaks to what is going on in the world. This show does that.”

Ragtime tells the story of three families of different cultural and ethical backgrounds at the turn of the century and explores the plague of hardship for immigrants and people of color and continues to shine light on the bigger issue of white privilege. Sounds a bit like 2019, no?

Director Terrence J. Nolan took a risk stripping the production down to its core, the score by Stephen Flaherty (Music) and Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics). Originally produced on Broadway with a cast of 60, Nolan delivers with a mere cast of 19 who all play multiple roles. Minimal set in the round designed by James Kronzer using a bare stage with complimentary lighting by Thom Weaver.  Levonne Lindsay designed the costumes to deliver on Nolan’s concept, however the time period was a bit haphazard. I say this as the cast was costumed in near appropriate time period garb, yet hair and eyewear were of contemporary fare.  Perhaps a little Hamilton influence that didn’t quite have a through-line.

The impeccable cast delivers on nearly every note.  Kim Carson’s portrayal of Mother accentuates the leadership of the household at every turn.  Colin Rivel plays Little Boy, Mother’s son, who I just recently saw play the same role at The Eagle Theatre is just as marvelous. For such a young actor, he has quite the comic timing. Playing Jewish immigrant Tateh is Arden newcomer Cooper Grodin.  Grodin tugs at your heartstrings with his brooding demeanor and masterful paternal chemistry with Lily Lexer who plays Little Girl. Arden regular, Rachel Camp, creates such a unique portrayal of Evelyn Nesbit that was such a pleasant surprise.  Every time she bellowed a “Weeeeeeee!” the audience was able to take a breath from the powerful storyline and rest in for more of what’s to come. Moreso, she was able to transition into every other ensemble role she played with esteem. Jim Hogan’s character, Father, gave us a little bit of hope.  He gave heart to his portrayal more than I have seen from any other production.  Fiery Emma Goldman was played by Mary Tuomanen who although small in stature is a powerhouse.

At the heart of Ragtime is the love story between Coalhouse and Sarah, Nkrumah Gatling and Terran Scott respectively.  Scott’s voice is youthful, clear, and a driving force in “Your Daddy’s Son’.  Unfortunately, their lack of chemistry sacrificed what could have been a showstopping performance in “Wheels of a Dream” as well as plot points of Act 2.

Jamison Foreman

The star of this specific production is the orchestra as led by onstage piano player/conductor Jamison Foreman. This is where Nolan was crafty by leaving the audience to wonder if he was Little Boy all grown up.  As he staged Little Boy near him several times throughout as if telling the story and watching the story playout. The orchestra was spread throughout the arena as well and some instruments divided amongst the actors, specifically musical theatre Philebrity, Alex Bechtel, who played several characters including Henry Ford, on accordion.

The staging of this piece was clean and exemplified with choreography from Steve Pacek.  Keeping with the bare theme, the Model T Ford is a central property, and, in this re-imagining, a piano and piano bench stepped in to this role.  Using ordinary items to create the Ragtime world was a win. Both Nolan and Pacek utilized the space that Kronzer designed well.

The ensemble also consisted of Donovan Bazemore, Quinn Carson, Derrick Cobey, Scott Greer, Jessica Johnson, Nicholas Pontrelli, and Skip Robinson. Having this incredible group of actors play dozens of characters throughout also represented the world in which we are working toward.  It didn’t matter which gender or race, they just filled into the role needed and we believed that.  That’s the world I want to live in.  Just be.

RAGTIME

Book by Terrence McNally

Music by Lynn Ahrens

Lyrics by Stephen Flaherty

September 19 – October 27, 2019

F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia

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