From the very first notes of the magnificent Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens score you will be swept up into gently-tinted photographs that explode into a vibrant, achingly relevant story that is the soaring production of “Ragtime” at Pasadena Playhouse. It tells the story of a history that is distant by years but all too familiar in themes from the struggles of immigrant families to racial injustice, income inequality, and women’s rights. I saw the pre-Broadway run of the original “Ragtime” at the Shubert in 1998 and as beautiful and emotional as it was, it wasn’t as impactful as it is today, which is one of the reasons this new revival at the Playhouse transcends. It is also pared down from what many felt was a bloated production in ’98 and the result is powerful.
Based on the E.L Doctorow novel set in the early 20th century, “Ragtime”, written by Terrence McNally, weaves together the stories of a well to do, white, Protestant family, living a genteel life in New Rochelle, an African American ragtime pianist and the mother of his child, a Jewish father from Latvia and his daughter, and the ways they impact each other in a time of whiplash change in the country as innovation was exploding. It was a triumphant reshaping of America through oftentimes devastating growing pains. The script doesn’t shy away from the language of the time which can shock present day sensibilities eliciting audible gasps from an audience moved to tears throughout. They began minute one and continued as the lush, 16 piece orchestra, beautifully led by Darryl Archibald, soared and swept into your bones.
With its history, beauty and intimacy, the Playhouse evokes an old Broadway theatre making it the perfect venue for this musical revival. The spare Tom Buderwitz designed set of wooden shipping containers on docks, with elements of interiors flying in and out, puts the emphasis squarely on the storytelling, and in the capable hands of director David Lee, this cast digs deep and delivers the goods.
In a star-making turn, Clifton Duncan takes on the role of ragtime musician turned anarchist, Coalhouse Walker Jr., and delivers a soulful and gut-wrenching performance that is not to be missed. As Sarah, the woman Coalhouse must woo back, Bryce Charles has a powerful voice that devastates as she sings “Your Daddy’s Son.”
Marc Ginsberg gives a nuanced, poignant performance as immigrant widower, Tateh, struggling to make a life for his daughter. Shannon Warne is the heart of the show as Mother, who struggles to navigate the changes around and within her. Warne brings a raw vulnerability to every song, never more so than “Back to Before” when we see Mother come into her own right before our eyes. Zachary Ford exquisitely portrays Father in a state of bewilderment as he sees the changes in his wife and tries to grab hold of the life he once knew and Dylan Saunders brings a quirky determination to Younger Brother getting the biggest laugh of the night.
The entire cast is superb playing many of the real-life personalities of the day from Emma Goldman to Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. The choreography by Mark Esposito brilliantly captures the time period and manages to give us quiet, intimate moments while also creating whole crowds and chaos with a 21 person cast.
With its scintillating syncopation and expansive story of love and piercing transformation, Ragtime is the revival we need right now. If you saw the original, this one will move you in new and unexpected ways and if you’ve never seen Ragtime, get to Pasadena Playhouse for the must-see of the season.
Ragtime: The Musical continues through March 9, 2019 at Pasadena Playhouse. Tickets start at $25 and are available at pasadenaplayhouse.org, by phone at 626-356-7529, and at the box office at 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91101.