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REVIEW: "Ragtime" — Chance Theater, Bette Aitken theater arts Center

"Ragtime'' is the kind of musical that brings audiences to their knees in adoration!

ANAHEIM, CA: Chance Theater, Anaheim’s official resident theater company, presents the award-winning “Ragtime,” the musical — a glorious, exhilarating production bursting with energy and ingenuity, and now extended through August 11th on the Cripe Stage at Chance’s Bette Aitken theater arts Center.

Nominated for 13 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, “Ragtime” tells the story of three families at the turn of the 20th Century in pursuit of the American dream, painting a portrait of the people who built this country with the hopes for a brighter tomorrow.

Famous historical characters and a rich score propel the show's narrative, which is based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 acclaimed novel, uniquely mixing real-life figures with fictional. Multiple subplots run simultaneously, but the focus is primarily on the powerful depiction of three people — a stifled married woman from the upper classes, a determined Jewish immigrant, and a daring young musician from Harlem — whose fates become unexpectedly intertwined.

With music and lyrics by the winning team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the show boasts a Tony Award-winning book by Terrence McNally and such memorable songs as “Getting Ready Rag,” “Wheels of a Dream,” “Till We Reach That Day” and “Make Them Hear You.” The music includes a variety of genres, including marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime.

Mr. Doctorow's sleek, seductive narrative is unprecedented, examining a country dizzy from innovations in transportation and industry along with the attending social consequences. The musical unabashedly glories in its infatuation with the idea of progress, giving off the equivalent of a self-delighted chuckle any time it extols scientific advancement or achievement. Basically, it accents a concept built around the watchwords ''Hope,'' ''Dreams'' and ''Optimism.''

“The play has so much resonance in our world today,” says Director Casey Stangl (“The Children at the Jungle,” “Sense and Sensibility”). “The immigrant experience, the decaying of the American Dream, the intense divisions between groups, races, genders — all these themes are explored in a piece with a glorious score and fascinating characters.”

Playwright McNally has been described as "a probing and enduring dramatist," and "one of the greatest contemporary playwrights the theater world has yet produced." He has received an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, four Drama Desk Awards, two Lucille Lortel Awards, two Obie Awards, three Hull-Warriner Awards, as well as Tony Awards for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Ragtime,” among others.

Stephen Flaherty is best known for “Ragtime," which, in addition to winning a Tony for Best Score, also netted two Grammy Awards. Lynn Ahrens has won a Drama Desk Award, an Outer Critics Circle Award for the Broadway musical “Ragtime,” and was also nominated for two Academy Awards and two Golden Globes for the animated Twentieth Century Fox film, “Anastasia.”

Blessed with visual beauty, ambition, a smashing wardrobe and a social conscience, ''Ragtime'' is the kind of musical that brings audiences to their knees in adoration. And there is truly much to admire in the show, from its daguerreotype images telestically brought to life to the electric presence of its leading man, Dony Wright, as the revolutionary Coalhouse Walker Jr.

With a sweeping look at the beginning of this century from the perspective of its end, using Kelly Todd's spirited period choreography, it gives one the feeling of perhaps being inside an instructional diorama in a pavilion at a world's fair.

Both Mr. McNally's libretto and Mr. Flaherty's score often evoke the rhythms of the Scott Joplin-esque rag music used as a metaphor for changing times. It's a fitting work about the velocity of change, a mood enhanced by both the liquid segues from one scene into another in a show-off, seamless, fluid quality and the ever-shifting, emotionally coded colors and lights that drench the stage.

"And there was distant music

Simple and somehow sublime

Giving the nation

A new syncopation

The people called it Ragtime!"

The production begins as the novel does, with beguiling quietness. A door opens and a young boy is seen in a corridor of light; a single rag melody line, the matrix of all the music to follow is heard, and within the next 10 minutes, all the essential themes of ''Ragtime'' are established with theatrical eloquence.

The genteel rhythms of the opening melodies are disrupted with jagged jazz syncopations and Jewish folk inflections amidst a swarm of immigrants arriving. Shifts in the music herald the advent of other classes of immigrants, and eventually, the ensemble's uneasy dance and increasingly dissonant music become an image of a melting pot whose ingredients remain unassimilated.

The characters who break out of the dance to introduce themselves represent three separate story lines that will intersect and mesh. There's the white, well-to-do New Rochelle family of Father (Ron Hastings, “The Other Place”), along with Mother (Rachel Oliveros Catalano, “Big Fish”), and their intelligent and creative Little Boy (Brendan Knox, “Rebel Genius”), plus Mother's restless Younger Brother (Joseph Bricker, “Tigers Be Still”).

Then there's Coahouse Walker Jr. (Dony Wright, “Big River”), the charismatic jazz pianist, and his lover, Sarah (Jennifer Talton, “Rent”), who, with her illegitimate child is taken in by Father’s family in New Rochelle. Wooing Sarah with ragtime tunes until tragedy hits, Walker seeks revenge and resorts to violence and arson. He becomes a notorious, persecuted celebrity, and is publicly condemned by Booker T. Washington ("Look What You've Done" – Jabriel Shelton and Company).

The third story line belongs to Tateh (Wyn Moreno, “Violet”), a Latvian Jewish immigrant who, with naïve optimism about the new world and hopes of a better life for his daughter, Little Girl (Rebeka Hoblik, Ovation Award nominee for “Violet”), turns a knack for creating animated silhouette picture books into a career as a movie director.

Also on hand are such iconic figures as the folksy Henry Ford (Ron Hastings in a double role), Booker T. Washington (Jabriel Shelton, “Rent”), the brusque, rabble-rousing actress, Emma Goldman (Bryce Hamilton, “Thoroughly Modern Millie”), Harry Houdini (Matt Takahashi, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”) and Evelyn Nesbit (Sarah Pierce, “Hairspray”). Yunga Webb (Director – “Shrek the Musical”) plays Sarah’s friend, Glenn Koppel (“Emma, The Musical”) is the crotchety Grandfather, and Ausar Landon Wright (stage debut) is Coalhouse Walker III.

Some of the more noteworthy numbers were, "President," by Ms. Talton's Sarah, "Back to Before," by Ms. Catalano's Mother, and "Justice" by Mr. Wright's Coalhouse and Company.

The thrilling Ensemble includes Dance Captain Sydney DeMaria (“Big Fish”), Jake Burnett (“The Secret Garden”), Kristin Yata (“Sister Act”) and Christianne Holly Santiago (“Legally Blonde”).

Directed by Casey Stangl and Assistant Directed by Nicole Koenig, the production team includes Chance Theater Resident Artists, Robyn Manion (“Lizzie”) as Music Director, Kelly Todd (“Big Fish”) as Choreographer, and Nicole Schlitt (“The Little Prince”) as Stage Manager. Also, Scenic Designer Christopher Scott Murillo (“Good People”), Sound Designer Ryan Brodkin (“Skylight”), Dramaturg Sophie Hall Cripe (“Violet”), and Dialect Coach/Fight Choreographer Wyn Moreno (“Emma, The Musical”).

Making their Chance debuts with this production are Lighting Designer Wesley Charles Chew (“Stockholm”), Costume Designer Wendell Carmichael (“Native Son”), and Props Designer Danthi Tran (“The Little Mermaid”­). The Executive Producers for this production are Sophie & Larry Cripe and Rachelle Menaker & Eddie Schuller. Bette & Wylie Aitken are the Season Producers and for the entire 2019 Season. Laurie Smits Staude is Associate Season Producer.

"Ragtime" continues at Chance Theater through August 11th and is presented Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm; Sundays at 3pm. Tickets: $25.00 - $49.00. Call (888) 455-4212 or visit Discounts available for children (ages 4-12), seniors, students, and military. This show has the highest recommendation.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report

*Photos by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio


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