Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ragtime: Westchester's hometown musical

Ragtime, the musical picture of America at the dawn of the 20th century, is currently playing until May 4 at Westchester Broadway Theatre, close to what might be called the show's hometown.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same title, Ragtime begins with the book's first sentence, anchoring the action in Westchester County, just north of New York City: "In 1902, Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle."

Even more amusing for this reviewer, my current residence, Mamaroneck (just a few miles northeast of New Rochelle) gets a literal shout-out from a train conductor later on.

The cast of Ragtime
This production is directed by John Fanelli and produced by his Standing Ovation Studios performing arts facility in Westchester. Last year, Fanelli's production of In The Heights was a major hit at WBT and a stretch for a suburban dinner theater more accustomed to showcasing classic fare such as Guys and Dolls.

Ragtime is a big, sprawling show with three intertwined stories: a white, middle-class New Rochelle family (Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather) takes in a troubled young black woman and her baby; the baby's father (ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) encounters vicious racism and reacts violently; a Jewish immigrant from Latvia (Tateh) struggles to make a better life for himself and his young daughter.

Also putting in an appearance are some of the giant personalities of the age: Henry Ford, leftist agitator Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, whose jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, shot her lover, architect Stanford White, in a roof garden theater.

I've always loved Stephen Flaherty's score and Lynn Ahrens' lyrics and Terrence McNally's Tony-winning book is worthy of a great playwright. However, Ragtime to me has generally felt like a history diorama with the real-life figures trotted out to make a point.

However, this cast makes the most of the show's intimate moments, underscored with such glorious melodies as "Ragtime," "Your Daddy's Son," "The Wheels of a Dream," and "Till We Reach That Day."

FaTye and Brittney Johnson as Coalhouse and Sarah.
Coalhouse is played by the Westchester-based actor FaTye, whose story is a journey as dramatic as this musical. Raised in foster homes and group residences around New York, FaTye was mentored by several Westchester educators and theater people, including Fanelli at Ovation. I saw him in a smaller part last year in In the Heights, however he has had lead roles, including Jim in Big River at WBT. 

On opening night, FaTye seemed a bit tentative, however, both he and Brittney Johnson (who played Sarah, the baby's mother and was miked too loudly) were contending with difficult sound problems that may well have thrown them off a little. I would love to see FaTye take the stage with power and verve, because he has acting and singing talent to burn and deserves to inhabit fully his gift.

Two other standouts for me were Victoria Lauzun and Joey Sanzaro. Lauzun plays Mother, the compassionate New Rochelle woman who takes in Sarah and her son, radiating grace and tenderness in songs such as "Goodbye, My Love" and "What Kind of Woman."

Mother (Victoria Lauzun) and Tateh (Joey Sanzaro)
Sanzaro as Tateh reminded me of a young Topol, his warm tenor blending beautifully with Lauzun's on "Our Children," as Mother and Tateh form a deep friendship. Earlier, in "A Shtetl Iz Amereke," Sanzaro ably communicates a father's rage at the brutality of a new land and his desperate quest to keep his child safe.

Although it received lukewarm reviews when it opened in 1996, Ragtime has become a very popular show, with another production in Westchester on the boards last fall. Two years ago, it was produced at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada. Click here for that post.

WBT's production, at three hours, could be tightened up, however choreographer Greg Graham moves the 40-member cast smartly through ragtime dancing and illuminates in movement the wariness of three groups of Americans -- whites, blacks and immigrants. Steve Loftus' set echoes the 1909 Queensboro Bridge and Gail Baldoni's costumes cover shades of cream, burgundy and tan for the three groups.

Ragtime's theme is that America is a land of hope, despite the times that it fails to live up to its better nature, and this production shines with that ideal.