The original 1998 Broadway production of “Ragtime”, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens all based on E. L. Doctorow’s acclaimed novel, had a cast of 24 in a production budgeted at ten million dollars boasting live fireworks and a working Model T. Ford on stage. Imagine that massive production scaled down to size, specifically for the intimate environs of the Music Theatre of Connecticut’s cozy black box theatre. The Norwalk company deserves plenty of praise for taking on such a Broadway behemoth and doing pretty well in the process.
“Ragtime” is set during 1906-1910 in and around New York City where we meet a wealthy family in New Rochelle, a pair of Jewish immigrants via Ellis Island and the African-American community in Harlem. These three groups cross paths with each other and numerous celebrities of the period including the radical anarchist Emma Goldman, vaudeville queen Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and more. The central character is Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker whose purchase of that Model T sets a number of racially charged events in motion. It all makes for a powerful musical, one of the great ones from the 1990s.
So what’s different about MTC’s “Ragtime”? Well, William David Brohn’s lush, Tony winning orchestrations, which featured 26 musicians on Broadway, are whittled down to just two pianos (expertly played by conductor David Wolfson and Mark Ceppetelli) at MTC. Evelyn Nesbitt’s famous swing is nowhere to be found and the semblance of a Model T is glimpsed quickly before disappearing offstage. With only 16 in the cast, the African-American population is sorely under-represented here made evident during the final scenes when Coalhouse looks pretty lonely leading his revolution. I also think director Kevin Connors is hampered in moving his actors on the multi-tiered set designed by Jessie Lizotte. They are often running into each other or out of the light in several scenes.
But where Connors does very well is with the casting of “Ragtime”. The musical’s glorious score is in able hands with these singers beginning with the commanding Ezekiel Andrew playing Coalhouse Walker, Jr. When he duets with lovely Soara-Joye Ross on their thrilling ballad, “Wheels of a Dream”, chills are guaranteed. Juliet Lambert Pratt, as a wealthy New Rochelle matron, is on target with her major number, “Back to Before” and Dennis Holland, as her husband, possesses a beautiful baritone well represented in “Journey On”. A fierce Mia Scarpa brings both fire and ice to her portrayal of Emma Goldman as well as several other characters here and Frank Mastrone (saddled with an unfortunate beard in act one) is warmly paternal as Tateh, a Jewish immigrant caring for his motherless daughter (Ryan Ryan). Ari Frimmer is also a delight as the youngest member of the cast, a pint-size Greek chorus all by himself.
The singing, as good as it is, can often sound a tad overwhelming in such an intimate setting and the first act has its sluggish spots mostly due to the staging. The unattractive backdrop, done in various shades of brown, is probably there to assist RJ Romeo’s projections. They don’t really register, however, especially if you are sitting on either side of the stage. But, in all, this is an admirable effort for the theatre currently celebrating its 33rd season and a wonderful showcase for some terrific singers simply strutting their stuff.
“Ragtime” continues at the Music Theatre of Connecticut, 509 Westport Avenue in Norwalk through October 13. For ticket reservations or further information call: 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor and resident critic of WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.