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Theater review: Hale Centre's 'Ragtime' exhilarates, uplifts with powerful performances

Published: Saturday, June 15 2013 8:00 a.m. MDT

“RAGTIME,” Hale Centre Theatre, West Valley City, through July 27, $16-$26, 801-984-9000 or hct.org

WEST VALLEY CITY — At the Hale Centre Theatre, “Ragtime” is unabashedly sentimental, spectacularly performed and beautiful.

With expert singer-actors and the large, impressive ensemble, the production is several notches above standard fare. Individual performances stand out, but the behind-the-scenes artistry of director Chris Clark, choreographer Marilyn May Montgomery and musical director Kelly DeHaan is also evident.

The musical poignantly depicts a young nation suffering the pains of change. Primary characters whose lives intertwine — Mother, a white Protestant homemaking wife; Coalhouse Walker Jr., an African-American Harlem musician; and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant — represent groups in upheaval at turn-of-20th-century American society.

“Ragtime” is a sweeping, enjoyable Broadway show. But in the weeks leading up to this production, I was surprised at the number of people who told me it was their favorite contemporary musical. Credit the doorstopper novel by E.L. Doctorow adapted by book writer Terrence McNally with deft compositions by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — and the genius introduction of a new genre of American music as a metaphor of the endings of bigotry and beginnings of increased love and understanding.

The coupling of Mother and Tateh would appear unlikely, but Cecily Ellis-Bills and Christopher Higbee make it inevitable and charming. The lovely voiced Ellis-Bills is magnificent. She has an unending quiet dignity to make the family matriarch touching and sympathetic. The strong conviction she develops in “Back to Before” becomes a stirring testament of enlarging determination and a contrast to her previous devotion in “Goodbye, My Love.”

Equally compelling is Higbee, whose Tateh suffers in the New York City tenements and the sweatshops before carving out a better life for his young daughter. He has a handsome voice and his acting skill includes an unwavering Eastern European accent. His buoyant delivery of “Gliding” is pleasing, and the duet with Ellis-Bills, “Our Children,” expressive.

A flawed policy of this theater company is not to acknowledge performers assuming alternate roles. At the performance reviewed, Coalhouse and his lover Sarah were movingly played by Actors’ Equity member Carleton Bluford and Oyoyo Joi Bonner, who were misidentified in the program. A stirring actor, Bonner makes “Your Daddy’s Son” is a sweet lullaby. Two anthems are sung by the pair: the duet “Wheels of a Dream” and the solo “Make Them Hear You,” by Bluford. They are memorable and nice summations of the show’s central theme.

Each of the show's characters is struggling to find his place in the emerging cultures. Younger Brother in the suburban family joins the radical movement that includes anarchist Emma Goldman’s campaigns for civil rights. The roles are played by Tom Nelson and Adrien Swenson, vibrant actors with stunning voices.

Hale West Valley's conception of “Ragtime” shows trust in the material’s strength. Rather than large sets and elaborate gewgaws devised to mask weaknesses of selected productions, small and carefully chosen set pieces glide in and out, after a bare stage of the overture.

Another strong point is the blocking of the cast on the round stage (with a slightly overused rotating and elevating platform). Circular patterns subtly evolve into tri-corner or square tableaux vivants, adding wonderful variety to audience focus. The period costumes are also appealing and well-chosen.

“Ragtime” is exhilarating.

While Hale West Valley is a nonunion company with a management insistence that it’s a community theater, productions such as this advocate a stronger acknowledgement of the deserving professional-level talent along the Wasatch Front.

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