So, no pressure Arvada Center, but Ragtime (Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) is my all time favorite musical. And while I think it is an excellent production, there is a surprising power upset that is even more excellent. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, this play is usually all about the struggles of black Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker and his lovely Sarah. While the actors in these roles each have solid voices and did a good job, they didn't command a centered presence (with that said, I must admit that "Sarah Brown Eyes" was absolutely beautiful). Suddenly, we are swept into the story of upper-class suburban Mother and her rebellion into independence. Couple that with Latvian immigrant Tateh's struggles in our land of opportunity and the traditional telling of Ragtime gets turned on its head, offering a completely different perspective on this timeless tale of struggle, loss, and ultimate victory. Suddenly, I couldn't look away.
The powerhouse of this production is Denver favorite, Megan Van de Hey in the role of Mother. She is enchanting and commands every moment she's onstage. It was fascinating to witness the growing independence of Mother, who discovers Sarah's newborn baby buried alive and, rather than let Sarah go to jail, takes them both in. This one story out of the trifecta is the heart of the play. It was touching to incorporate a chorus of women to support Mother onstage while she blew the roof off "Back to Before," but somewhat superfluous as Van De Hey has no trouble owning the stage as a solo performer. Arvada veteran Wayne Kennedy as Jewish immigrant Tateh is a joy to watch, conveying the struggles and sacrifices of the idealists who land on our shores with dreams of making this county as great as it should be. "Gliding," about the realization of that American Dream, is so beautifully executed it gave me a lump in my throat. (Yes, I wiped more than a few tears away), and then when Mother and Tateh sing "Our Children" the tears really started to flow. Daniel Langhoff as Younger Brother offers a stand-out performance, along with Sharon Kay White as Emma Goldman, Keith L. Hatten as Booker T. Washington, Matt LaFontaine as Harry Houdini and Piper Lindsay Arpan as the adorable Evelyn Nesbitt (she had that "weeee" down!) I must also praise Jacob Pearce for building a substantial character out of the minor role of Little Boy. Given the socially broad and relevant subject matter of Ragtime, the ensemble members are to be commended for supporting not only the primary actors, but also the overarching story tone and pace; they kept the thematic movement steady and consistent, even during the more unpredictable and shocking scenes, while buoying the show musically with powerful voices.
With a musical as big as its historical theme, the set itself must be able to accommodate a large cast and strong voices. The Arvada Center did not hold back, utilizing every nook and cranny of the stage, even putting the orchestra in the gallows beneath the stage to maximize space. Scenic designer Brian Mallgrave created a wonderful, fully functioning two-tier set, with stairs on both sides and panels highlighting the major characteristics of the early 20th century era during which the play is set. He also featured smaller, mobile mini-sets that helped to enhance the various scenes and made the scene transitions seem effortless. The stage crew even went so far as to create a mock Ford Model-T, which performed surprisingly well and served as a salient symbol of the American Dream the characters pursue, albeit through different paths. The costumes, designed by Clare Henkel, also deserve a mention for completely capturing this diverse and colorful era - one reason the actors were able to so fully embody their roles.
Director Rod A. Lansberry and musical director David Nehls have given this time-tested musical an interesting new perspective, one that will touch your heart and your mind. Ragtime is playing at the Arvada Center now until October 2nd. For tickets or information, contact the box office at 720-898-7200 or visit them online at www.arvadacenter.org.