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Review: Overlong, overwrought 'Ragtime' misses mark for grand opening

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When the folks at Theatre Lawrence imagined opening night of their brand new building, they likely had something other than a plodding, hand-wringing show rife with technical and design problems in mind. Unfortunately, “Ragtime’s” paper-thin plot and running time of nearly three hours from opening curtain to final bows got the 36-year-old theater company off to an uncertain start in its new digs despite some strong individual performances.

With a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, “Ragtime” is set in the first decade of the 20th century. Telling the stories of three very different families — upper-class whites from New Rochelle, African-Americans from Harlem and Jewish immigrants from Latvia — the show intends to say something about the quintessential American experience of the last century and the importance and struggles of change by wrapping it all in the music of the period. The stories of the three principle characters — Mother (Sarah Young), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Robert McNichols, Jr.) and Tateh (Patrick Kelly) — are interwoven, but only Mother gets enough time onstage to truly establish any kind of real character development.

McNichols and Kelly pour their hearts into their roles to try to make them three-dimensional, but neither is given much to work with in terms of growth from beginning of the show to end. Coalhouse, in particular, is barely seen until 40 minutes into the first act (he does appear in the overly long opening number), and he isn’t given much to do, plot-wise, until the second act, when he essentially becomes a terrorist, vanishes from the story altogether and then surfaces again at the end for the predictable and overwrought climax. Conversely, Tateh seems to be important in the early part of the show, but he, too, vanishes in the second act and then re-emerges improbably successful before disappearing again until the denouement.

In between, we are given number after number, stretching out the story, clumsily piling on the history lessons and making us wonder how and if it all fits together. Several songs add nothing to the show except running time. “Crime of the Century” tells the story of celebrity personality Evelyn Nesbit (Sarah May Pippitt) and adds virtually nothing to the plot. “What a Game!” is supposed to be about a failed bonding attempt between Father (Bruce Douglas) and Little Boy (Liam Elliott), but nothing comes of it whatsoever. And there are cameo appearances by historical figures such as J.P. Morgan (Charles Whitman), Henry Ford (Peter Hansen), and Harry Houdini (Brody Horn), none of which is necessary. Only famed anarchist Emma Goldman (Amy Kelly) adds anything to the story with her presence.

“Ragtime” is slow, unfocused and fails to say anything important about America or the time period beyond the facts that it was turbulent and people had dreams.

The ponderous nature of the show was unfortunately worsened by a number of technical problems both in the production and the design of the facility. Theatre Lawrence effectively maintained the intimacy of its old building despite a vastly larger stage and almost twice as many seats. But the rows are narrow, making the otherwise comfortable chairs feel cramped. Because of the design, you can’t put your feet under the seat in front of you, creating an uncomfortable experience for patrons with long legs.

Moreover, the rows are long, with few aisles, making them difficult to exit quickly. That, along with long lines in the bathrooms and at the bar, led to a 25-minute intermission. The increased seating capacity seemed to be working against the theater, even though there are vastly more toilets than at the old building.

Technically, the show was beset with problems. All of the leads were mic’ed, but they were potted up so loud that, when an unmic’ed actor had a line or a solo, it could barely be heard. Worse, several of the microphones were broadcasting static when the performers sang or spoke. In particular, Jake Leet’s mic was so full of static he sounded like he was making a call from outer space.

Director Mary Doveton made a lot of use of the theater’s 30-foot revolve, but it rotated so slowly many scene changes moved every bit as glacially as the plot. Doveton and set designers Jack Riegle and Phil Schroeder also made a curious decision in the show’s design. With a spacious new stage, they opted for a minimalist set. There were several large pieces — most impressively a full-size, wooden Model-T roadster — that were moved on and off, but the stage was otherwise bare, and we saw all the pieces before the first act was over. Consequently, the underused space sucked a lot of the intended pageantry out of the show.

And yet “Ragtime” does have its moments. Flaherty’s music and Ahren’s lyrics are gorgeous and often stirring. Music director Mary Baker created impressive sound on the group numbers, especially the Act I finale, “’Til We Reach that Day.”

Many of Theatre Lawrence’s longtime actors seemed inspired by the opportunity to open the new building, giving their finest performances. Leet is exceptional as the fiery Younger Brother. He sings beautifully, and, without overdoing it, he perfectly captures the archetypal young man searching for what he should believe in.

Patrick Kelly is mesmerizing as Tateh. He plays father to his own daughter Brynn onstage, and not only do the two have natural chemistry but they also provide some of the show’s most uplifting moments. His song, “Gliding,” in which he comforts her fears, is sweet and moving.

Newcomer McNichols’ lyric baritone is easily the best male voice to grace a Theatre Lawrence production in at least the last 10 years, if not ever. It might be the best voice the troupe has ever had. He infuses Coalhouse Walker with passion and beauty, making one wish he had more scenes.

Genée Figuieras has the daunting task of playing opposite him. Not only does she hold her own against his formidable voice, she complements him perfectly with a floating mezzo that dazzles both in their duet, “Wheels of a Dream,” and in her haunting solo, “Your Daddy’s Son.”

But as strong as many of the individual performances are, they simply can’t overcome the slow, meandering plot, the technical difficulties and the design issues. As the perfect grand opening for Theatre Lawrence’s new facility, “Ragtime” misses the mark by a long way.

To be fair, the creative staff has only been in the building for a few weeks. Attempting to get a show on the stage in that short period of time was extremely challenging. One hopes and assumes that, as Theatre Lawrence grows into its new space, future productions will be much stronger.

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