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