Sunday, February 1, 2015

Actors’ Playhouse: Ragtime (reviews)

actors playhouse onstageFEBActors’ Playhouse opened their production of the musical Ragtime at the Miracle Theater on January 28, 2015.
This sweeping musical portrait of early 20th century America tells the powerful tale of a white, upper-middle class family, an African American couple, and an Eastern European immigrant escaping to America with his daughter, as they all confront the timeless contradictions of wealth, poverty, freedom, prejudice, hope, and despair in pursuit of the American Dream. Unfolding through the fiery rhythms of Harlem and Tin Pan Alley, and the vibrant klezmer of the Lower East Side, this vivid and unforgettable Tony-winning score bursts onto the stage “on the wheels of a dream” in what will be the largest and most epic production ever staged at Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre.
David Arisco directed a cast that included Mark Sanders, Melissa Minyard, Julian Gorelick, Max Leifman, Dominique Scott, Tally Sessions, Julia Dale, Athena Pacanins, Don Juan Seward II, Sarah Nicole Batts, Stephanie White, Joshua Dobarganes, Ken Clement, Reggie Whitehead, Gabriel Zenone, and Irene Adjan, with musical direction by Dave Nagy.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Actors’ Playhouse has gifted us with fine shows since its high water mark 12 years ago with the transcendent Floyd Collins… But as far as large-scale Broadway musicals, Ragtime stands as Actors’ finest mainstream work ever, as accessible and satisfying as it is passionate and thoughtful. Anyone who cares about musical theater, or theater in general, should make a special effort to see this production.
…praise is due director Arisco and musical director David Nagy. Arisco is such a skilled, almost invisibly smooth stager of musicals that it is easy to forget how virtually everything you see and hear is in large part because of his vision and his ability to bring his vision to corporeal life.  Similarly, the gorgeous vocal performances and orchestral accompaniment of visceral power have been forged by Nagy’s knowhow.
…the production’s leading virtue: a cast that is uniformly superb, especially the six leads, each one of them singing actors with clarion expressive voices that wring every emotion and intellectual idea out of the score.
Seward… makes perfectly credible Coalhouse’s evolution from a heedless rake to a profoundly loving partner to an enraged activist capable of undirected violence.
Minyard… has a priceless lovely soprano to chart Mother’s uneasy self-actualized transformation to a person who knows her own worth, culminating in “Back to Before.”
Sessions… is breathtaking in the verve and vitality he brings to the immigrant fiercely protective of his daughter. Sessions’ Tateh is a true artist who begins cutting out delicate silhouettes yet who pragmatically becomes a wildly successful entrepreneur as a pioneer director of silent films for the masses.
Sanders… inhabits someone who is watching his cherished privileged life disintegrate in such numbers as “New Music.” Batts breaks hearts any time she sings of her love for her fatherless child and her beloved Coalhouse… Scott delivers the kind of youthful passion that makes credible Younger Brother’s evolution into someone willing to blow up buildings.
While she is not a lead, Adjan’s portrayal of the fiery Goldman is an indelible and stirring force of nature whose righteous outrage powers much of the show.
The cast of 35 performers on stage at one time along with alternates for the children’s roles seems to include anyone not working in La Cage aux Folles at the Wick, Bonnie & Clyde at Slow Burn Theatre Company or Into The Woods at the Arsht. It’s like the South Florida Actors Full Employment Program. The ensemble members, who play multiple roles, contain several Carbonell winners and nominees.
It has been a hell of a successful couple of years for choreographer Ron Hutchins but he may have outdone himself with this work that is so fresh and inventive even in recreating period dance styles, notably the exuberant “Getting’ Ready Rag.
Tim Bennett… has created a set that fills every inch of the Playhouse’s proscenium stage… Bennett’s design change moods and scenes with the use of projections, in this case, silhouettes echoing Tateh’s handiwork. All of it is evocatively lit by Patrick Tennent who can indicates a multitude of locations, made to seem everything from bucolic to threatening.
This trot-out-the-superlatives production is a sharp rebuke to anyone who thinks South Florida needs to take a back seat to anyone anywhere in the country when it comes to regional theater.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
From the opening notes of the new production of Ragtime at the Miracle Theatre, one thing is strikingly clear: This epic, panoramic musical may turn out to be one of the best shows Actors’ Playhouse has ever done.   By the end of a magnificently sung evening, that possibility becomes a promise fulfilled.
Director David Arisco and two key collaborators, musical director David Nagy and choreographer Ron Hutchins, have crafted a Ragtime that glides from one scene to the next, telling their resonant story through dialogue, music and dance. Ellis Tillman, who created nearly 300 costumes for the show, articulately helps tell that story through design. And from the leads to the hard-working ensemble, the cast impressively navigates a piece that is operatic in its scope and demands.
If casting is half the battle when it comes to putting together a superb production, Arisco won the war…
All except the opera-trained Batts have done major roles at Actors’ Playhouse before, and the work they’re doing in Ragtime soars. Minyard delivers gorgeous solos... Her duet with Sessions on Our Children and her trio with Sessions and Sanders on Journey On are among the show’s highlights.
Batts delivers a deeply emotional Your Daddy’s Son. She exudes joy as she and Seward imagine the future on Wheels of a Dream, and their retrospective Sarah Brown Eyes is both lovely and heartbreaking. Seward — charismatic, grief-stricken, full of fury — comes into his own as a leading man in his fierce interpretation of Coalhouse. Sessions… is extraordinary as the father who, like so many Americans, reinvents himself.
Dominique Scott is a bit too much adrift as the rudderless Younger Brother, George Schiavone is amusing as plainspoken Grandfather, and Max Leifman (alternating with Julian Gorelick) is winning as the prescient Little Boy, based on clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. Nick Duckart is, as he should be, a beast as racist fireman Willie Conklin. Julia Dale (alternating with Athena Pacanins) makes you understand Tateh’s protectiveness as his Little Girl. White is trouble in a bustier as Nesbit, Dobarganes is a magnetic Houdini, and Adjan is a pot-stirring Goldman. Fredena J. Williams as Sarah’s Friend leads a mournful, soul-stirring Till We Reach That Day. As Coalhouse’s son, tiny Eli Burris (alternating with Caleb Chiang and Zoe Burris) runs out when the show is nearly over and promptly walks off with every heart in the audience.
Though the events of Ragtime take place a century ago, what the show has to say — about justice, respect, racial tension, economic disparity, women’s lives, the American dream — is thought-provokingly relevant to a 21st century audience. Thanks to the skills of Arisco and his many collaborators, those memorably delivered messages come through loud and clear and beautifully sung.
Actors’ Playhouse  presents Ragtime at the Miracle Theater through February 22, 2015.

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