New Rep rises to the occasion with a stirring 'Ragtime'

By Ed Siegel, Globe Staff 
May 3, 2006

WATERTOWN--If each production at the New Repertory Theatre this season has marked a progression in learning how to use its new, larger space at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, then ''Ragtime" represents a quantum leap.

The show's scale is something that couldn't have been dreamed about in its old digs at the Newton Highlands church, which the company left last spring. The 32 singers and eight-piece band would have filled half the audience seats, never mind the stage.

The qualitative leap is even greater. Director Rick Lombardo has room to show that the company isn't just a small theater on steroids, but a legitimate midsize theater, only a notch below what the Huntington Theatre Company and American Repertory Theatre can offer in terms of stagecraft.

One of the great musicals of the last quarter-century, ''Ragtime" needs this kind of room to unfurl. The opening number, which introduces the characters and themes, has WASP, Jewish, and black characters move from a pageant-like processional in separate quarters of the stage into a whirl that hints at both connection and confrontation.

Composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and book writer Terrence McNally mirror E. L. Doctorow's great novel, which showed how idealism and disruption lived side by side at the turn of the 20th century. A man who had it all could lose everything by his inability to see the world changing. Another could lose everything by insisting the world change on his timetable.

What distinguishes ''Ragtime" is how central music itself is to these ambitious themes. Ahrens and Flaherty provide some of the most gorgeous theater music since ''West Side Story" -- no more so than in the melody of ''New Music," which sweeps the listener, and the characters, into a world of new sounds and new sensibilities. For progressive-minded characters, these sounds conjure a world of new possibilities. For reactionaries, they signal threat.

The score itself is not really ragtime, but a pretty blend of piano rags and Broadway showstoppers. And Lombardo has found the voices to stop the show -- beginning with Leigh Barrett, who is luminous as the mother of all Mothers. Barrett is such a strong yet humble presence that she stands out as the musical's moral and musical center.

Mother and Father live lives of repressed conformity that are shaken when she discovers a black baby in the garden. It had been left there by Sarah, who couldn't face having an illegitimate child. Mother takes the two of them in and pretty soon Coalhouse Walker Jr., the baby's proud father, comesa-courting.

For the part of Sarah, a role made famous by Audra McDonald, New Rep turned to Stephanie Umoh, an undergraduate at the Boston Conservatory. And like other students at the school who've shined on local professional stages, she's a dazzler. If this sophomore wants a career in musicals, then Boston theaters should get in line.

As Coalhouse, Maurice E. Parent doesn't have the vigorous personality of Brian Stokes Mitchell, the character's originator, but who does? He has a full-bodied though not completely trustworthy voice and his duet with Umoh on ''Wheels of a Dream" is worth the price of admission.

The Jewish third of the story is the least successful in ''Ragtime." Both the music and the theme are cloying and self-congratulatory. Tateh the immigrant isn't nearly as interesting as the other three major characters, nor are his songs as good.

Given all that (not to mention a beard that looks like a leftover from a community theater ''Fiddler on the Roof") Robert Saoud is as likable a Tateh as I've seen. His voice isn't the most complementary to Barrett's, but it has considerable sweetness and strength.

Among those who help keep the large cast moving is Kelli Edwards, whose stunning choreography includes witty riffs on the growth of popular entertainment forms like vaudeville. On the other hand, Janie E. Howland's set isn't much to look at. Apparently all the money was spent on the cast and band because the stage consists mostly of rolling platforms that serve a variety of purposes.

Lombardo, though, has supplemented the set design with Dorian Des Laurier's artful selection of historical photos that are projected overhead. It's always apparent in this ''Ragtime" that serious issues coexist with the procession of personalities -- among them Houdini and Emma Goldman -- who intersect with the main characters.

Yet the tunes that give ''Ragtime" staying power don't get short shrift, especially in the first act, which includes the ''Ragtime" theme, ''New Music," ''Wheels of a Dream," and the gospel finale ''Till We Reach That Day" (delivered in powerhouse fashion by Dee Crawford). The second-act score is not nearly as strong.

<>Fortunately, there are singers onstage who can make the sentimental sound stirring. At its core, ''Ragtime" is about the struggle to make a home in a changing America. This ''Ragtime" shows that the New Repertory Theatre has made the Arsenal Center into a wonderful new home of its own.

Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.