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by Jennifer Bubriski
EDGE Entertainment Contributor
Sunday Apr 30, 2006

For their last production of this season, the New Repertory Theatre has swung for the bleachers. Ragtime certainly stress tests the New Repís production capabilities with uneven results, but the overwhelming emotion of the musical and the frequent showstopper numbers the cast provides ultimately make this a hugely satisfying production.

Based on E.L. Doctorowís sprawling novel that weaves the story of a WASP-y New Rochelle family with the lives of a black musician and an immigrant man and his daughter, and a host of historical characters from Harry Houdini to Henry Ford, Ragtime may seem to be best suited to being painted on a large canvas, as it was in its cavernous home during its Broadway run. But as North Shore Music Theater proved a few years ago and the New Rep shows again, the show packs just as much of an emotional wallop in a more intimate setting. The characters pop in a smaller scale production, even if a few of the big musical numbers seem a bit crowded.

Thereís a lot thatís great about the New Repís production of this Tony award-winning musical. Letís start at the top with some powerhouse performances. Maurice E. Parent as ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., has a beautiful baritone and strong acting chops, although heís slightly less effective seeking vengeance in Act Two than he is courting his love Sarah (Stephanie Umoh, a sophomore at the Boston Conservatory with a killer belt that can morph to a lyrical soprano as in her showcase number Your Daddyís Son) and keening from grief in Act One. Leigh Barrett as Mother, the matriarch of the New Rochelle family, gives a beautifully subtle performance as a turn-of-the-century housewife awakening to her own identity as the social and political fabric of the world shifts around her. Barrett can sure sell a song, from her lovely and powerful eleven oíclock number Back to Before to duets with Peter Edmund Haydu (who wrings sympathy from the stolid character of Father, a man so cozy in his privileged world that he thinks nothing of sailing away to the North Pole for a year and is amazed when he returns to a very changed home) or Robert Saoud as Tateh, the immigrant clawing for a better life for his little girl.

But the most breathtaking performance has to be Austin Lesch as Motherís Younger Brother. Lesch, seen as Tobias in the New Repís Sweeney Todd, is utterly commanding in his role as a young man who shifts from youthful passion to despairing alienation to revolutionary fervor. When heís on stage, itís hard to watch anyone else, and his vocals soar. If it werenít for the fact that the structure of the show means thereís no room for the audience to applaud after The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square, Leschís performance in that number would have stopped the show.

Thatís why the productionís missteps are so glaring. Although Saoudís eyes hold an eloquent sadness and heís up to the vocal challenges of the role of Tateh, he far too frequently missed the first word or two of musical phrases and his portrayal of rage teeters over into overacting. Heís not helped by some of the blocking given him - directors, please repeat after me, I will never, ever make an actor run in place in order to pantomime running a great distance. Also disappointing is Samuel A. Wartenberg as the Little Boy. Not only does he not look vaguely related to the rest of the upper class family heís supposed to be a part of (would it have been so hard to extend the wig budget to slap a blond or redheaded wig on the boy?), but he lacks the preternatural quality the role demands. After all, the character does foretell an assassination that sparked World War I.

Thereís so much to love in the production that itís strange how many mistakes there are. The many technical gaffes (mics turned on a line or more into a solo, a flowered hat incongruously left on stage far too long in after a set change from a garden to Ellis Island, scaffolding sets that are clever but clank at inopportune times) but the attention must also be paid to improving performances. For every standout in the cast, including chorus members like Karimah Saida Moreland and Lawrence-Matthew Jack who radiate conviction in their nameless characters every second theyíre on stage, there are cast members who ill at ease or even listless. Good thing a host of smaller roles are played by actors who not only nail their notes but possess the charisma of the historical figures they portray; June Baboian as radical anarchist Emma Goldman, Aimee Doherty as the famous-for-being-famous Evelyn Nesbit and Paul Giragos as Houdini are all pitch-perfect and add a lot of humor to a show thatís heavy on drama.

Still youíd have to be an awfully cold fish to resist the things in this show that work so well, from the staging of union rallies to the incredible group vocal work (music director Todd Gordon has gotten this cast to pump out some serious sound). Numbers like New Music and the incredible act one finale Till We Reach That Day are written to be showstoppers that will either bring a lump to your throat or have you outright sobbing, and the New Repís cast more than delivers, both in musicianship and, more importantly, in honestly bringing epic emotion to the songs.

At the New Repertory Theatre through May 21, 2006, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, for more information or to purchase tickets go to

Jennifer has an opinion on pretty much everything and is always happy to foist it upon others.