BACK STAGE WEST
February 20, 2003
at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center
One of the all-time great American musicals, Ragtime has nothing to prove. This adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's panoramic novel--book by Terrence McNally, score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens--will handily outlive its peers.
What it hasn't outlived yet, on the evidence of this impressive, ebullient new production by Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities, is the impact of the original Livent production, directed by Frank Galati and choreographed by Graciela Daniele. This new CLOSBC rendition is a direct, almost miraculous copy of that indelible production, which opened at the Shubert in 1997, right down to its lighting design (by Pamila Gray) and sets (uncredited but based on Eugene Lee's original). The original costume designer, Santo Loquasto, is credited--apparently his resplendent threads have been rented here--alongside the "additional costumes" of designer Marcy Froehlich. I mean no disparagement to the meticulous reconstruction efforts of director Robert Clater and Lesia Kaye when I suggest that by rights their credits should have followed Froehlich's lead.
It's all here: the bracing triptych of the opening number, with its quick narrative folios and iconic face-off between WASPs, Negroes, and immigrants; the simple modular set pieces; the silhouettes against the scrim; the Model T, the train chase, the fire-escape scaffolding along the proscenium, etc. There's nothing here to upset our fond memory of the original: Even Kingsley Leggs as Coalhouse Walker, the proud black musician who becomes the show's tragic test case of the American Dream, appeared late in the Shubert run, giving Coalhouse a more hardscrabble, showmanlike edge than did Brian Stokes Mitchell's soaring, quasi-operatic original. He makes a bright, bold lead--his "Gettin' Ready Rag" is a blast of pure pleasure--and Victoria Strong, who played Mother on the Ragtime tour, has a firm but tender grasp on this awakening matron.
In short, the performances and staging throughout don't vary widely from the Galati/Daniele playbook--this production could be mistaken for a particularly good night on a tour stop-but, given the brilliance and resonance of their conception, who can complain?
Still, even a theatrical production that can be loaded into a truck ultimately succeeds on the sensitivity and feeling of its live interpretation in the moment. And this Ragtime finally succeeds on the strength and intimacy of the performances, both by a tireless and talented cast and by Steven Smith's letter-perfect orchestra. I particularly liked Eric Anderson's take on the immigrant impresario Tateh, which has just the right manic mix of grit and warmth. Strong's climactic revelation "Back to Before" has a firm-footed feminist force; and while I first thought bass-baritone Robert Alan Clink's Father seemed a cheap, broad caricature, he deepens into a brooding sad sack, a valid and sympathetic interpretation. Likewise Stan Chandler's nerdy Younger Brother, who's a little too smilingly sweet until we see his radiance channeled into a cause.
We leave it to future generations of revivals to re-examine and reconceive this American treasure. For now we can relish the still-fresh glories of the original, as recreated here so lovingly; in a vulnerable and fearful time, this Ragtime still speaks with resounding force to the tragically hopeful experiment we call America.
"Ragtime," presented by the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach. Tues.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. (Sun. 7 p.m. on Feb. 23, Mar. 2). Feb. 15-Mar. 2. $35-50. (310) 372-4477.