Theater Review: Ragtime at the Pasadena Playhouse

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse
Photo Credit: Nick Agro

“Make them hear you” is one of the most well-known refrains in Ragtime, and the current production at the Pasadena Playhouse is in fact demanding to be heard—and it is well worth listening to. With lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, and a book by Terrence McNally, Ragtime is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow. Set in the New York City area in the early 20th century, it follows three groups of people searching for their version of the American Dream—an upper-class white family, an African American Harlem musician and his girlfriend and son, and Eastern European immigrants. Over the course of several years, the lives of the people in these three groups intersect in unexpected and sometimes tragic ways, resulting in a sweeping tale that, much like life itself, manages to be both heartbreaking and uplifting.

Photo Credit: Nick Agro

Directed here by David Lee, Ragtime has always been notorious for being an ambitious, sprawling show to produce. The cast is large, a Model T automobile is critical to the plot and basically has to appear on stage, and the general scope of the show is big, spanning many different locations and storylines. This version features a cast of 21, which is in fact pared down as many of the actors play multiple roles, and a 16-piece orchestra. The first major production of the musical in Los Angeles in over twenty years, it is one of the most ambitious efforts the Pasadena Playhouse has ever put forth. There are moments when the limitations of a somewhat smaller space show—some scenes feel crowded, and necessary use of not only the width of the stage but the height of it leads to some awkward sightlines. But ultimately, the magic of this beautiful score and story are able to mostly mask any difficulties.

Photo Credit: Jenny Graham

The story begins with Mother (Shannon Warne), a wealthy suburbanite who is left to manage her household alone when Father (Zachary Ford) sets off on a sailing expedition to the North Pole. Along with the lives of Grandfather (Gregory North), Mother’s Younger Brother (Dylan Saunders), and her son (Luké Barbato Smith), Mother’s life is turned upside down when she discovers an abandoned African American baby in her garden. She surprises herself when she immediately makes the decision to take in the child as well as his mother, Sarah (Bryce Charles), a choice she knows her husband would not approve of. Soon, the baby’s father, a pianist named Coalhouse Walker (Clifton Duncan) who is known for his plucky ragtime music, begins calling at Mother’s home every Sunday, desperate to convince Sarah to take him back. During these visits, Mother and her family bond with Coalhouse, and eventually his persistence wears Sarah down and the two reunite, excited to begin a new life with their child.

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse
Photo Credit: Nick Agro

Everything takes a turn when Coalhouse’s prized possession, his Ford Model T, is vandalized by white racist thugs. Coalhouse is a stubborn and righteous man who demands justice be served for this crime, and when the legal system disappoints him at every turn, his methods grow more and more drastic, ultimately resulting in tragedy. Coalhouse’s plight is far from the only civil rights issue of the time. The words of anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Perri) catch the eye of Younger Brother, who quickly becomes enchanted by the idea of life as an activist. Goldman is not the only actual historical figure to appear in the show—Booker T. Washington (Dedrick Bonner), Harry Houdini (Benjamin Schrader), Evelyn Nesbit (Katharine McDonough), and J.P. Morgan (Tom G. McMahon) also appear.

Photo Credit: Jenny Graham

Meanwhile, Tateh (Marc Ginsburg), a Jewish artist from Latvia, arrives in the United States with his young daughter (Iara Nemirovsky). At first they are in for a rude awakening. No one wants to buy Tateh’s handmade silhouettes, life in the tenements is far worse than the life they left behind,  and everything seems hopeless—until one day, when a fresh idea and a lucky break finally show Tateh that the American Dream might not be a myth after all.

Ahrens and Flaherty’s music is truly stunning. The highlight of act one is Charles’s soaring performance of “Your Daddy’s Son,” a heartbreaking and beautiful song Sarah sings to her baby, reminiscing about Coalhouse. Charles and Duncan are the standouts in a cast that is overall terrific, bringing such life and depth to Sarah and Coalhouse and their bond, making you care deeply about them in only a few scenes. They sing the gorgeous “Wheels of a Dream” together, looking to the future they hope to have, and this sentiment becomes a refrain throughout the show, touching all of the characters in one way or another. Another musical highlight is “Back to Before,” Mother’s eleven o’clock number in which she reflects on all of the irreversible ways her life has changed now that she has, in a sense, woken up and realized there is more to life than simply being the wife of a distant, ungrateful man.

Photo by Nick Agro / Pasadena Playhouse
Photo Credit: Nick Agro

The set (Tom Buderwitz) is fairly minimal, as is necessary to maintain room for such a large cast on a relatively small stage. The lighting (Jared A. Sayeg) is lovely, helping to differentiate the various settings and moods. In some ways, Ragtime as written is a bit too ambitious. The three primary storylines are all so emotionally charged and effective that they are really all the show needs, and the forays into history with Nesbit and Houdini often feel extraneous. An odd but persistent subplot where Mother’s son is implied to be clairvoyant, blurting out odd statements that are in fact premonitions of the upcoming first World War, is also perplexing and distracting. But all in all it is a truly beautiful show, and this production is an achievement to be proud of. The heart and soul of the story feels relevant and important in today’s political climate, a timely reminder that we can never truly know someone else’s story, and that we often have more in common with those who seem different from us than we could ever imagine.

Ragtime runs at the Pasadena Playhouse through March 9th.  The running time is two hours and thirty minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.

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