Director Rick Lombardo has vision: He knew the sprawling, ambitious Tony winning musical, RAGTIME, would find a perfect fit at New Rep. I would never have believed it because I mistakenly thought its grandeur was its claim to fame. What Lombardo has achieved is nothing short of miraculous. He finds passion where presence reigned on Broadway ---and balance where spectacle overshadowed the individual struggles of the characters. By elevating the humanity, curiously enough, he increases the resonance of playwright Terrance McNally’s book, getting all the metaphors effortlessly across and driving home the sad realization that things (like immigration, peace and justice) are not so very different now.
The New Repertory Theatre’s powder keg of a production explodes from the get go with a stunning anthem for the entire cast of forty. If you don’t feel the thrill bouncing off the stage and into the audience, you’re in need of a transfusion. Lombardo puts the turn-of-the-century love stories front and center and you can feel the connection the moment the characters’ eyes meet, way before their stories unfold. There was so much electricity in the air on Monday evening, that you’d suspect Lombardo and music director Todd Gordon of alchemy.
The sexy ragtime rhythms in Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s songs flow through the “spinning century,” pausing and percolating with each of the three families from the E.L. Doctorow novel. The rhythms are gentle and soothingly syncopated, for the “proper” upper middle class white family. The rhythms slide and percussion moves the torso to cake walk when we meet ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. When the immigrants arrive, the rhythm picks up the klezmer call of a clarinet.
Doctorow wove historical events into the mix so that scenes are punctuated by appearances from Houdini (Breaking his chains a lot more easily than the African-Americans or the Jewish immigrants could), revolutionary firebrand Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit, the infamous “girl in the velvet swing,” whose jealous husband shot and killed Stanford White, architect of the Washington Square Arch, the second Madison Sq. Garden and many NYC Romanesque edifices..
Lombardo and Gordon have assembled a cast to die for. Leigh Barrett is luminous as Mother in her gorgeous wasp waist dresses (by Frances Nelson McSherry and Molly Trainer). She not only sings divinely but acts with her singing, making her duet with Bob Saoud (at last, a leading man!) a study in physical restraint: Their voices caress each other because their bodies can’t. Mother is married to a stuffy Peter Edmund Haydu who leaves home in search of adventure when adventure arrives right at home in swaddling clothes.
Maurice E. Parent is a charismatic Coalhouse Walker, whose face radiates affection for Sarah, portrayed ever so sweetly by Stephanie Umoh. When Coalhouse is denied justice, his face curls into righteous anger, and the music cleverly changes tone right with him. Parent can dance as well as he sings, making the Getting’ Ready Rag one of the show’s highlights and his tragedy one of the show’s most horrifying scenes. Dee Crawford brings down the house with her soaring lament as she brings down the curtain on Act I.
One performance after the next dazzles, with extraordinary work by June Baboian as Emma Goldman, by Aimee Doherty as Evelyn Nesbit, by Paul Farwell as Coalhouse’s nemesis, by Austin Lesch as Mother’s hapless younger brother, by Bill Molnar as a heartless JP Morgan, by Kenneth Harmon as the elegant Booker T. Washington and by every member of the ensemble. I could go on. Suffice it to say that my audience Monday evening broke into spontaneous applause several times. The New Rep’s RAGTIME is theater that moves, theater that matters. Do not miss a beat of it.