New Rep mounts a rousing 'Ragtime'

southcoast.com
May 05, 2006
Page B02

By David Brooks Andrews


Standard-Times correspondent

The New Repertory Theatre makes a major statement with their production of "Ragtime," the final show of its first season at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown.

The show announces that they are worthy of their new, larger space, that they can fill it and make it throb with life. It gives us reason to stop yearning for the days when they performed in one of the most charming, if impractically small, theaters in all of Greater Boston.

It's like watching a wonderfully unique child grow up and move away and realize that some things have changed, as they must, but the child's essential uniqueness hasn't been lost.

"Ragtime" is a huge musical show as it portrays the clash of cultural forces at the beginning of the 20th century. When Father says, "Nothing will change in the year I am gone" as he heads off to the North Pole with Admiral Peary, it's obvious how wrong he is. Everything will change, as immigrants pour into the country looking for a better life and African-Americans begin insisting on the justice they've been denied for so long. The upper-class WASPS will no longer be able to live in isolation from the rest of the world.

It's hard to watch New Rep's production of "Ragtime" without thinking of our times at the beginning of the 21st century and feeling that we're in a similar state of chaotic flux. Who will write the sweeping musical of our times?

"Ragtime" of course is based on E.L. Doctorow's novel by the same name. One of the intriguing devices of the novel is the mixing of fictional characters with actual famous people of the time illusionist Harry Houdini, political reformer Emma Goldman, and activist Booker T. Washington, among others. Terrence McNally, who wrote the musical's book, preserves the device to good effect, while Stephen Flaherty draws beautifully on ragtime music as a symbol of the inexorable change. Lynn Ahrens provides the poignant lyrics.

"Ragtime" has the potential for feeling a little static and self-aware at times. But the New Rep's production has the energy and drive that smashes through most of this.

The greatest energy comes from the African-American actors with their high-stepping, wonderfully fresh dance moves and their robust singing. Maurice E. Parent as Coalhouse Walker Jr. takes over the stage, first with his optimism and then his searing anger when his automobile is destroyed by a company of white volunteer firemen.

Nobody wins hearts in this show as much as Stephanie Umoh in the role of Sarah with her gorgeous voice and her warm, beautiful stage presence. What a treat to hear her sing "Your Daddy's Son" to the baby boy she originally abandoned.

Robert Saoud is a powerhouse of energy as Tateh, the Jewish immigrant who faces down Emma Goldman and tackles a man who offers to buy the pride of his life, his young daughter. Never mind that his beard is a caricature of itself. His performance is somewhat less original when Tateh transforms himself into a filmmaker.

Even the WASPS burst with energy as they perform a rousing scene at the ballpark, where Father's son is introduced to the rowdiness of cheering for the home-town team.

Leigh Barrett brings her beautiful singing voice to the role of Mother, as she becomes the moral center for the show when she takes Sarah and her abandoned baby into her home. It's a very moving moment when Coalhouse first holds his baby son and then reluctantly hands him back to Mother.

One wishes that Aimee Doherty might have put a little more zing into Evelyn Nesbit, the famous chorus girl whose husband shot her lover, making front page news. But Austin Lesch as Younger Brother lights up the stage with his intense passion, first for Nesbit and then for Coalhouse's radical cause, and he sings beautifully, too.

The opening narration is hard to hear over the music, as are the words of one of the young actors, but this should be fixable.

Director Rick Lombardo has done an incredible job pulling the show together and making it flow smoothly, yet with such energy.

Janie E. Howland's set of rolling platforms is practical but would grow a bit old if it weren't for the lyrical and often moving historical photos that are projected onto two screens on either side of the stage throughout the show.

There are some terrific sound effects and the costume Father wears when returning from the North Pole will make you feel like he'd really been there. Francis Nelson McSherry and Molly Trainer's other costumes capture the era, too.

This show is a rousing salute to America as a great melting pot in which change is unavoidable and to New Rep's ability to grow as they fill their new space.

<>"Ragtime"
When: Through May 28. <>
Where: Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown.
Tickets: From $35 to $53; (617) 923-8487 or online at www.newrep.org.