Ragtime The Musical Review - A Poignant Beautiful Portrait

Upper class white Americans stroll serenely around the stage, walking delicately and singing of a safe, content life.  Piano chords cascade down, the music picks up, and a group of African Americans joyously run on stage, whooping and dancing.  Then the tone of music changes once again as Eastern European Jewish immigrants arrive, and the three groups uneasily mix before joining together to sing the final grand notes of the song.

Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty

This is Ragtime, a rich musical look at a changing America at the dawn of the 20th century, and the Musical Theatre of Los Angeles (MTLA) puts on a fine production of it at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Hollywood.  Based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime follows the tale of these three groups, focusing on three representing characters as their lives intertwine - Mother, a white Protestant homemaking wife, Coalhouse Walker Jr., an African-American Harlem musician, and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant.  With a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, Ragtime paints a poignant picture of a young nation as it suffers the growing pains of change.  The blindly content are suddenly faced with the unfortunate, the dreamers are faced with harsh reality, the innocent meet with cruel prejudice, and all the while, everyone struggles to reach their American dream as they fight against the currents of racism and violence.

Historic personalities from that era such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Ford appear periodically throughout, but they are merely flashes, living representations of the time period.  The main characters of Mother, Coalhouse, and Tateh receive much more intimate focus, as we follow their lives and they bare their souls in song, but in the end, Ragtime still feels like snapshots into these charcters' lives - a flipbook that is beautiful to see, but goes by too quickly for any heavy emotional involvement.  It nevertheless still manages to stir the soul and splash a stirring picture upon the musical canvas.

Jon Jon Briones

And what music it is!  The backbone of any musical is the music, and Ragtime is no exception.  The beautiful songs of Stephen Flaherty are what carries this musical, as they range from the toe-tapping strains of ragtime music to the moving, lyrical lines of a ballad.  The rousing opening number alone will remain stuck in your head long after the show has ended, and the strong cast does justice to Flaherty's moving melodies.  The three leads especially deserve mention.  Megan Briones gives a touching, sympathetic portrayal of Mother, a sheltered homemaker whose eyes are suddenly opened to the world around her.  Her voice is lovely to hear, and she has a quiet dignity that never leaves her, no matter how drastically her life changes.  Kevin Yarbrough is a fiery, passionate Coalhouse and remains an electric presence throughout the musical.  His emotions can be felt in the very back corners of the room, and he gives a powerful rendition of the famous 11 o'clock number, "Make Them Hear You."  Jon Jon Briones as Tateh is by far one of the strongest vocalists in the cast, and his portrayal of a Jewish immigrant struggling to give his daughter a better life is touching and heartfelt.  His lovely understated performance of "Gliding" is a wonderful tribute to Flaherty's melodious talent.

Josie Yount as Evelyn Nesbit

Though their appearances are brief, Josie Yount's flighty Evelyn Nesbit, David Edward Perry's solemn Booker T. Washington, and Amy K. Murray's acidic Emma Goldman make the most of their stage time in their portrayal of these iconic figures.  The ensemble in general is very solid, though the orchestra unfortunately is not quite as tight as the cast.  The adaptation of this formerly lavish Broadway spectacle to the intimate 99-seat Hudson Backstage Theatre is handled well; the background silhouettes are very effective, and the spirit of the musical is kept intact.  

Despite its new cozy confines, Ragtime succeeds in feeling epic yet familiar all at once.  Though it is a broad sweeping picture of a changing America, we still get close personal shots of these characters' lives.  Perhaps it is apt that such a grand musical experience fits in the smaller setting, just like the snapshots of life in the musical feel like the short, silent films that were sweeping that era.  Ragtime is a dazzling musical portrait that will bring back all the nostalgia, heartbreak, and hope of 20th century America.

Ragtime The Musical runs September 12th through October 5th.  Performances are at the Hudson Backstage Theatre at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, Sundays at 2 and 7 PM.

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