Sunday, May 27, 2012

Review: (Shaw Festival) Ragtime

Eden Kennedy and Jay Turvey (photo credit: David Cooper)

The Music of Something Beginning
Shaw’s Ragtime explodes off the stage
by Dave Ross and Stuart Munro
Our weekend in Niagara-on-the-Lake has come to a close with the Shaw production of the Tony Award winning Ragtime. This extraordinary work by composers Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and author Terrence McNally narrates the changing face of America “as the twentieth century emerges.” We follow three families: the white middle-class of family of New Rochelle, known only by their familial designations; the African-American struggle of Coalhouse, Sarah, and their young son; and the newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, Tateh and his daughter, the little girl. Over the course of three hours their paths are slowly intertwined to become one story.
Book writer, Terrence McNally, brilliantly uses these historical characters to help narrate the story for us

Ragtime opened in Toronto in 1996 before making its way to Broadway in 1998, where it received mixed reviews. Nonetheless, it was nominated for an astonishing 13 Tony Awards, winning Best Score, Book, Orchestrations and one for actress Audra MacDonald. Despite these successes, Ragtime lost the award for Best New Musical to the Disney behemoth The Lion King. There’ve been many whispers about the political nature of this award (it was felt keeping Disney happy would be good for Broadway after Beauty and the Beast lost the Best New Musical prize), and while The Lion King is visually stunning, it doesn’t hold a candle to Ragtime in terms of content. As mentioned in the Shaw and Stratford preview piece, both of us were pretty excited to finally see Ragtime on stage.
Stuart Munro: As soon as we entered the theatre we were greeted by Sue LePage’s wonderful set design. A red, white and blue draped series of steel looking staircases criss-crossed the stage, giving us a good feel for the early Edwardian-era of the show. These staircases moved when needed to show us characters sailing on ships, or to subtly change the scene. This aesthetic was fleshed out by a series of projections which helped to give the sparse set a real sense of depth. Ms. LePage was also responsible for the wonderful costume design: the white summer attire of the middle classes, the drab rags of the immigrants, and the bright dance hall clothes of the "negro" characters.
Dave Ross: Only being somewhat familiar with the music, I really enjoyed the experience of seeing the story come together. The plot development of the first act is complex but woven together in such a way as to be completely comprehensible. The second half perhaps wraps up some of the threads too hastily, but it was refreshing to see that not every difficult situation was perfectly resolved.
SM: I know what you mean. The authors had a huge task paring down the novel, which is just as heavily populated with historical figures as it is with the fictional protagonists. Book writer, Terrence McNally, brilliantly uses these historical characters to help narrate the story for us, and manages to make what could be a cumbersome exposition as fresh as the dialogue itself.
Ms. Hibbert’s performance of “Your Daddy’s Son” broke the hearts of everyone in the auditorium

DR: I think a large part of that success was due to the talented ensemble assembled for this production. The dialogue, lyrics and music are all a bit larger than life and could easily come across as insincere in the wrong hands. I adored Thom Allison as Coalhouse and Alana Hibbert as Sarah. Their rendition of “Wheels of a Dream” gave me gooseflesh. Ms. Hibbert’s performance of “Your Daddy’s Son” broke the hearts of everyone in the auditorium, even if her movement was hindered by her awkward position on an upstage catwalk. Both of these vocalists easily filled the theatre with their sound making the need for amplification almost unnecessary.
SM: I couldn’t agree more about the awkward staging! But we’ll get to that in a bit. I have to say I really loved Patty Jamieson as Mother. Mother is probably my favourite character in the show, and at first I was worried that Ms. Jamieson wouldn’t have the vocal strength to take on her second act showstopper, “Back to Before.” But as soon as she challenged her husband in the middle of Act I, her performance really began to come alive for me and my fears proved to be unfounded. Equally as strong was the brilliant Kate Hennig’s interpretation of Emma Goldman. It’s a smaller part, but Ms. Hennig really made it her own. Unfortunately, I felt the head of the third family group, Jay Turvey as Tateh, didn’t quite meet the same standard that Ms. Jamieson and Mr. Allison set. Mr. Turvey’s performance was more caricature than character, and his passion never really exploded the way it needed to. Even so, I was moved to tears when he explained his desire to drive from his daughter’s memory “every tenement stench and filthy immigrant street,” and how he will “buy her light and sun and clean wind of the ocean for the rest of her life.” Lines like this showcase the true beauty of Terrence McNally’s book.
DR: It’s too bad that Jackie Maxwell’s staging didn’t always reflect the beauty of the text. There was a lot of stand and deliver, songs where the actors were mostly rooted to the spot as they sang at the audience. The score is full of epic music, and I sometimes wondered if such music required such staging, but I felt like more could’ve been done.
All in all the cast looked and sounded terrific, especially when the whole ensemble sang together.

SM: Valerie Moore’s choreography was a bit awkward at times as well. When she was using simple movements and creating tableaus and silhouettes (especially in the final scene) it was beautiful, but the full blown dancing never seemed to work, and even looked a tad sloppy. But I think it’s safe to say that these quibbles are pretty minor, and the production on a whole doesn’t suffer for it.
DR: Yes that’s true. All in all the cast looked and sounded terrific, especially when the whole ensemble sang together. It’s too bad that the Festival Theatre’s sound system leaves some vocal performances sounding a bit thin.
SM: Yeah. I also felt that the mix was a bit uneven, with the orchestra not always swelling to their full height, but that could be because the sound system couldn’t always project vocals the way it should. Again, these minor issues didn’t distract from what was otherwise an excellent production of one of my all-time favourite musicals. It was a real treat to finally be able to see it staged, and a thrill to not be disappointed!
DR: It was a real treat to finally see this show I had heard so much about. Ragtime’s not to be missed.

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