Review: Emotionally Rich and Rewarding Experience at Zao’s Ragtime

Gil Benbrook | Ragtime | Talkin’ Broadway | October 30, 2017

About to celebrate its 20th anniversary of opening on Broadway, Ragtime is a sweeping musical set just after the turn of the 20th century with richly defined characters and a superb musical score with an abundance of soaring ballads. With a huge cast, exceptional performances, spirited and succinct direction, and a large orchestra that fills the air with beautiful music, Zao Theatre’s production of this beloved show is an emotionally rich and rewarding experience.

Set mostly in and around New York City and based on E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel, the story follows three characters from vastly different backgrounds whose paths cross throughout the plot: a white woman simply called “Mother” from an upper middle-class town just north of New York City; an African-American piano player from Harlem, Coalhouse Walker, Jr; and Jewish immigrant Tateh who has just arrived in America. Doctorow also interweaves such historic characters as Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, and Henry Ford into the plot that details such topics as racism, worker’s rights, and the plight of the immigrant, all issues that are still incredibly relevant today.

The musical features music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally, all of whom won Tony Awards for their efforts. This trio successfully turns Doctorow’s novel into a musical that is both grand and epic but also immensely personal and intimate. McNally’s book efficiently moves swiftly across all three fictional story arcs and highlights the importance of the various factual characters to the time period, while the Flaherty/Ahrens score is a bounty of riches.

With a cast of over forty actors, director Mickey Bryce does an incredible job in making sure the large group all create unique characters, and he keeps the action and pace of the show moving along swiftly. There were some sound issues on opening night, so a few lines of dialogue and song lyrics were lost underneath the loud and bright-sounding orchestra, but Bryce and his cast manage to hit just about every dramatic moment on the mark and achieve some big laughs from the humor in McNally’s script. Bryce also designed the set, which uses just one raised walkway, a few large cut out pieces, two movable stair units, and archival photographs projected on two screens on the sides of the stage to quickly and efficiently set the locale for each scene. Diana Grubb’s detailed period costumes are simply stunning as is C.J. O’Hara’s music direction, which derives lush harmonies from the large ensemble as well as a full and rich sound from the 12-piece orchestra.

With great energy and a performance full of fire, Ivan Thompson is excellent as Coalhouse. He beautifully projects a sense of grace, an abundance of love for the people in his life, and the need for retribution when he encounters injustice. His voice soars on his two big numbers, “On the Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You.” As Mother, Lizz Reeves Fidler instills the character with a large dose of compassion and care. Under her well thought out portrayal, we witness a woman at a crossroads who finally realizes that she is in control of her destiny and doesn’t have to live in her husband’s shadow. Her solo of “Back to Before” is gorgeously delivered as are the numerous duets she shares with her co-stars. With a consistent European accent, Bryan Stewart is equally impressive as Tateh. His performance is infused with passion and many emotionally delicate moments that project the intense struggle Tateh has to keep himself and his young daughter alive. Stewart delivers a deeply poignant “Gliding” and, with Reeves Fidler, a rich and rewarding duet of “Our Children.”

In supporting parts, Anne-Lise Koyabe’s forceful and assured stage presence and impassioned vocals make for an exceptional Sarah, the woman Coalhouse loves, and Jeff Montgomery does well as the stoic “Father.” With deep sincerity and an intense conviction, Kellen Garner’s is one of the best portrayals of “Younger Brother” I’ve seen. He beautifully draws you into the plight of this young man who is desperately searching for some kind of purpose in his life. Rebecca Bryce’s beautiful singing voice and knowing glances make for a fun Evelyn Nesbit; Priscilla Bertling is both feisty and sympathetic as Emma Goldman; and both Joshua Boenzi and Mitch Etter get big laughs as the inquisitive Little Boy and cantankerous Grandfather, respectively. Robert Andrews, Jeff Huffman, Scott Sims, Tom Endicott, Corey Hardin, and Savannah Alfred do good work as the other supporting fictional and factual characters in the show.

Ragtime is a deeply moving musical that shows both the best and worst that America had to offer at the turn of the 20th century, as individuals encounter hardships and hopes in their pursuit of the American Dream. It may be over 100 years since this story takes place but the issues of racism and the price of freedom that the story tackles are still, unfortunately, relevant today. It is also a very ambitious musical with multilayered stories and dozens of characters. Zao Theatre proves they are up to this challenge with their well-cast, tight, clean and focused production which is incredibly strong and which makes for a very fulfilling theatrical journey.

The Zao Theatre production of Ragtime runs through November 11th, 2017, with performances at Centerstage Church, 550 South Ironwood Drive in Apache Junction AZ. You can get information and tickets by visiting www.zaotheatre.com. Tickets can also be ordered by calling 602-320-3275.

Music by Stephen Flaherty Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Terrence McNally
Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow
Directed by Mickey Bryce
Music Director: C.J. O’Hara
Choreographer: Laura Christian
Set Design: Mickey Bryce
Costumes: Diana Grubb
Properties: Carol Searle
Sound Engineer: John Schoenwolf
Stage Manager: Wendy Smith
Technical: Bill Williamsen, Bill Wiatr

Cast:
Coalhouse Walker, Jr: Ivan Thompson
Mother: Lizz Reeves Fidler
Tateh: Bryan Stewart
Sarah: Anne-Lise Koyabe
Father: Jeff Montgomery
Evelyn Nesbit: Rebecca Bryce
Younger Brother: Kellen Garner
Emma Goldman: Priscilla Bertling
Houdini: Robert Andrews
Grandfather: Mitch Etter
Willie Conklin: Jeff Huffman
Henry Ford: Scott Sims
JP Morgan: Tom Endicott
Booker T. Washington: Corey Hardin
Little Boy: Joshua Boenzi
Little Girl: Alexis Ritchey
Sarah’s Friend: Savannah Alfred
Candidate: Doug Ulmer
Harlem Ensemble: Nathan Alfred, Eric Banks, Michael Leeth, Felicia Penza, Grayson Penza, Isabella Penza, Sarai Phillips
New Rochelle Ensemble: Karissa Demauro, Brianne Gobeski, Amelia Huot, Kailyn Kluge, Shayla Montgomery, Stephen Shackelford, Emily Walter
Immigrant Ensemble: Zac Bushman, Kayla Cook, Tara Furcini, Tyler Galley, Eva Granillo, David Herbert, Jennifer Herron-Ulmer, Meaghan Katz, Katelyn Landall, Jareth Ulmer

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