By Karen Isaacs
Fitting a large scale musical on a smaller stage can either diminish the work, or bring it into sharper focus.
In the case of Ragtime, now at Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) through Oct 13, it increases the impact of the show. So much so, that I wish the show were running longer; it is almost totally sold out.
Once again Kevin Connors has proven his directorial chops in giving the show room to brief and never letting us feel that it needs more; more sets or more people. The cast has just 15 members.
The musical is based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name which intertwined three stories while also including real historic figures.
The musical, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, does the same. So Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbitt are all characters in the show. They help to set the mood, provide commentary and move the story along.
The plot begins with a well-to-do family in New Rochelle: Mother, Father, their young son, Grandfather and the Mother’s younger brother. They live in a privileged world in 1906, seemingly removed from anything that is disagreeable.
But into their lives (or really into Mother’s and her brother’s lives) the changing American world shows them the reality. First is the discovery of a newborn black child in their garden. While Father is away on an adventure in the Arctic, Mother takes in the child and Sarah, the child’s mother. Soon that brings into their lives, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. He’s the child’s father and a popular and successful ragtime pianist in Harlem.
A chance encounter at the train station, brings Tateh, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant and his young daughter into Mother’s life. It will be a while before these two meet up again, but in the meantime we see his struggles and the low wages and deplorable working conditions so many immigrants endured.
By the time Father returns, the family’s lives have been upended and Mother and her brother have changed dramatically. As the song in the show says, “we can never go back to before.”
The show is filled with music reminiscent of the popular music of the period, from Coalhouse’s ragtime, to vaudeville numbers but also to modern musical theater ballads. If you haven’t heard some of these – “Sarah Brown Eyes,” “Goodbye, My Love,” “The Crime of the Century,” and “Make Them Here You” – you will find they not only move the story along but will stay in your memory.
Connors has assembled a fine cast, many of whom have performed at the theater before. The real find is Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse Walker. Andrew has both opera and musical theater credits and he brings all his talents to bear on the character of Coalhouse. At times he breaks your heart. As Sarah, Soara-Joye Ross does a very good job but she doesn’t quite match him in emotional intensity.
Juliet Lambert Pratt as Mother, shows us the woman who is slowly coming out of her cocoon and discovering that she has opinions. Plus, she has a beautiful soprano voice. Dennis Holland is a fine Father, bewildered as he sees all that he believes in, slowly crumbling around him.
Other standouts in the cast are Mia Scarpa as Emma Goldman, Jessica Molly Schwartz as Evelyn Nesbit, and Jacob Sundlie as Younger Brother.
Jessie Lizotte has created a simple scenic design that easily transforms into the multiple locations of the story. Dian Vanderkroef’s costumes are perfect for the period.
A special nod must be given to music director/pianist David Wolfson and Mark Ceppetelli, the other pianist. This show has a great deal of music; their fingers must be exhausted by the finale.
If you can get a ticket, try to see Ragtime at MTC in Norwalk. Call, 203-454-3883 or visit MTC .