“Just like that tune, simple and clear, I've come to hear…New Music.”
Stop what you’re doing right now. Cancel your plans for this afternoon or tonight. Then get tickets to see one of today’s performances of Ragtime, running only through tonight (Saturday, February 9th) at the new Dallas City Performance Hall. Do it now; you can read the rest of this review later.
The Turtle Creek Chorale and Uptown Players seem like such a perfect match, it’s surprising they haven’t joined forces before. But thankfully they have now, with a stripped down version of Ragtime. I say stripped down because it’s billed as “the concert version,” but it’s hard to think much is missing. Sure, Coalhouse should be playing something that resembles a piano, instead of conducting the air. Sure, it would have been nice for Mother’s Younger Brother to stand on a chair when he sang “And he found that he was standing on a chair.” (Wait…why WASN’T he standing on a chair?) But minor quibbles aside, Ragtime is about the music and the performances. A 2009 Broadway revival stripped away some of the opulence of the original production, and director Michael Serrechia’s even more minimalistic approach for this engagement is largely successful.
Some musicals provide one or two stand-out numbers that persist in the musical theatre canon long past their original runs. And then there’s Ragtime. From start to finish, this 1998 musical from the team of Ahrens and Flaherty (think Debra Messing and Christian Borle from TV's “Smash”) is non-stop memorable melodies and lyrics. From the stunning opening number to Coalhouse’s final plea, “Make Them Hear You,” Ragtime is a pleasure to experience live, sung by people who can not only sing the score but also excel at portraying the emotional life of the characters.
That’s exactly what you get from this collaboration. TCC and Uptown have assembled over 150 voices, making each and every chorus number soar. That’s no slight to the soloists, either. Close to 20 performers get their chance to shine on at least one Ahrens/Flaherty gem, and nearly every one of them is superb. Clayton Younkin’s eccentric Houdini is infused with pathos and determination. Maranda Harrison provides the perfect comic relief (and boy do you need it) as America’s first reality star, vaudeville’s Evelyn Nesbit. Major Attaway, in what is at least his third local production of the show, has the honor of playing Booker T. Washington just across the street from the performing arts high school that bears his name. That proximity might explain what seems to be an added prominence to Washington, but that would be an injustice to Attaway’s commanding take on the character.
Mary Gilbreath Grim, seen everywhere on DFW stages from WaterTower to Circle Theatre, brings new music to Mother that I don’t remember seeing from either Marin Mazzie (original Broadway cast) or Christiane Noll (the 2009 revival). She is every bit their equal, and her second act ballad “Back To Before” evokes something from the audience rarely seen in the theatre: applause before she even finishes the final note.
Even though they were given impossible shoes to fill (hello, Brian Stokes-Mitchell and Audra McDonald), both Markus Lloyd and Feleceia Benton still nailed the stuff that mattered, particularly in their Act One duet “Wheels of a Dream”.
Here’s where I claim my right as a Ragtime aficionado (okay, snob). While I understand the first act is already lengthy, I wish musical director Trey Jacobs had followed the tempos of past productions. Certain numbers were conducted at a pace that almost cheated the audience out of the tremendous emotional payoff (I’m talking to you, “New Music”).
It’s a shame—no, a tragedy—that this Ragtime will be over so soon. The new 750-seat City Performance Hall is the perfect venue for a production of this kind, but it’s difficult to imagine any local company being able to sustain a multi-week engagement in such a house. Don’t make the mistake I made with Nouveau 47’s On the Eve. Go. See. Ragtime. Today. You bought your tickets before reading this far, right?
Ragtime runs February 7-9 at Dallas City Performance Hall (2520 Flora Street, Dallas). Tickets range from $39-$54 and are available at www.TurtleCreek.org.