Ragtime’ an awe-inspiring musical that misses a few notes


By Terry Byrne
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Within the first five minutes of “Ragtime,” the soaring harmonies of the 32-member New Repertory ensemble induce goose bumps.

It’s the first of many stunning musical moments in this production of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical, based on the sweeping saga by E.L. Doctorow. Unfortunately, an awkward set design makes for some cumbersome scene changes, distracting from Terrence McNally’sbook, which follows family relationships and social and political upheaval at the turn of the 20th century.

“Ragtime” uses three families to tell its story: a white upper-class family living in New Rochelle, a young African-American family trying to take advantage of Booker T. Washington’s promise of a new equality and a Russian immigrant and his daughter hoping for opportunity in a new world. Along the way we meet some of the celebrated characters of the era, including Emma Goldman (a fierce June Baboian), Evelyn Nesbitt (Aimee Doherty), Harry Houdini (Paul Giragos), Washington (Kenneth Harmon), Henry Ford (Frank Gayton) and J.P. Morgan (Bill Molnar).

Director Rick Lombardo fills the Arsenal Center for the Arts stage with activity, and the production is most successful during the big musical numbers, cleverly choreographed by Kelli Edwards. Some extraordinary performances also fuel this drama, including a stellar Robert Saoud as the desperate, determined immigrant Tateh. He sings with intense emotion, yet when he reaches out to Mother (the first-rate Leigh Barrett), the gesture is subtle.

Another knockout is Stephanie Umoh, who plays Sarah, the young woman who tries for a new life with the ragtime player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Maurice E. Parent). Umoh gives the role a transparent vulnerability, especially in “Your Daddy’s Son.”

But the impressive performances are undercut by Janie E. Howland’s bland and barren scenic design. The set includes moving pieces that roll in and out too often, with distracting wires that even cut across the giant screens (which oddly show different pictures so you have to keep looking back and forth). The back wall of the theater is unnecessarily exposed, which seems to swallow some of the sound, and Franklin Meissner Jr.’s lighting design is too dark, with little in the way of focused moments. With an epic story to tell and grand music to hear, “Ragtime” needs a stronger frame.