Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Theater Review: TUTS’ Production of RAGTIME

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 00:37

The sweeping and phenomenally-scored, written, and moving Broadway musical RAGTIMEhas come alive in what can only be described as an absolutely phenomenal production by Theater Under the Stars at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, TX. The show is helmed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Tony-nominated for her staging of the revival of the show that bowed at the Kennedy Center in 2011 and found its way to Broadway in 2013.

The show centers around three major social groups that are mixing, by force, in turn of the century United States. One is a rich white upper class family, the next a Black community experiencing the racial realities of a post-Civil War America, and the final the immigrants who are pouring into the country for a better life. The three groups eventually clash and meld with one another; the show highlights that by focusing on a handful of main players—Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a popular and accomplished pianist with a acute understanding of the realities of racism who has fallen in love and fathered a baby with a poor Black woman named Sarah, Father, Mother, Younger Brother and Mother’s son (Edgar) who are experiencing maturation of a familial unit that is being torn apart by the crushing change in a time when their racial privilege and class has afforded them major life advantages, and a Latvian immigrant father (Tateh) and his daughter, poor and incredibly strained by a move to a foreign land that wants little to do with them other than to exploit them for their work.

Told behind the backdrop of racial stress, the industrial revolution where workers are starting to fight against their oppressive enslavement, and the personal stories of these three groups, RAGTIME presents an elaborate story of American history by weaving a tapestry of incredibly moving story, soaring music, and phenomenal effect. I have personally seen many productions of the show, including the original Broadway production (which remains to this day one of the best theatrical experiences of my life), revival, and several regional productions. 

I can easily attest that the production of the show here is simply the BEST one I’ve ever seen outside of that original Broadway bow in 1997. We’ll get to the acting and singing—which are both superb—but let’s talk technical aspects first. Dodge has recreated much, if not most of the creative elements from her Tony-nominated RAGTIME, with erector set type elements with a posterior projection screen that serves as a backdrop for the settings. Two moving staircases serve as the centerpiece for many of the show’s sequences, utilized effectively throughout. There are some enhanced set pieces and accentuated props used sparsely. But the show largely retains the qualities of its predecessor while adding elements that only add to its quality. 

As for the acting and singing—WOW! The actors here are first-rate (many plucked right from the stages of Broadway) including Tony nominee Robert Petkoff, who figuratively “steals” the show. His turn as Tateh rightly earned him a Tony nomination. He would repeat that here if possible. Mother is played extraordinarily by Courtney Markowitz while Father is played by Drama Desk nominated Broadway veteran Ryan Silverman. Of all the times I’ve seen the show, I have never seen a performer with the voice and acting abilities of Ezekial Andrew. Andrew is operatically-trained, which I at first found to be a potential threat to his ability to play the character. Opera, after all, is a FAR different musical style than ragtime. But, he proves here that he is not only a versatile singer that knocks RAGTIME’s sweeping numbers out of the park, but an absolutely incredible and talented actor who brings a unique and refreshing portrayal of the show’s main character. Sarah is played by Danyel Fulton, who also blows the roof off of the theater! She brings the heartbreaking characteristics of Sarah to life. Fulton’s big solo number as well as that of Markowitz were standing-ovation worthy.

There’s just not enough praise I can give this show. Even the side characters of Evelyn Nesbit (Emma Degerstedt), Harry Houdini (Josh Walden, also the show’s associate director and choreographer), and all the other supporting roles are played to shocking perfection. I can only imagine the cost of bringing this show to Houston—from the HUGE cast of close to 40 and orchestra of the same size, a Broadway-caliber performers and creative team, and all the other professional elements at play here, TUTS has shown its abilities to stage productions as a regional theater are second to none. RAGTIME plays at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts through April 28th. Tickets can be purchased at: https://my.tuts.com/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=86. DO NOT MISS THIS SHOW!

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