Dallas — After the soaring, magical (and lengthy) run of Wicked, Dallas Summer Musicals brings audiences back to reality with the relevant Ragtime, presented at The Music Hall at Fair Park. Melding historical and fictional characters against the shifting backdrop of early 20th century America, the musical is based on the novel of the same title by E.L. Doctorow, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
First things first: This production is not an Actor's Equity Association tour, which more often than not results in inferior quality than we see in major tours (check the hashtag #askifitsequity on any social media platform). Secondly, audiences should be warned that there is not a live orchestra, and the music is from a "virtual orchestra." More on that later in the review.
Although Ragtime is titled after a syncopated music style that was quickly eclipsed by jazz, the genre takes a backseat to a thoroughly compelling narrative, with intricate characters and plenty of timeless philosophical bits to chew on. Three different lives intersect in New England: a wealthy Caucasian housewife simply named Mother (Kate Turner), the vibrant African-American musician Coalhouse (Chris Sams), and a sprightly Jewish immigrant from Latvia nicknamed Tateh (Matthew Curiano).
As their stories weave in and out of each other and those of historical characters, they all undergo transformations reflective of the changing times. Mother discovers independence and compassion, Coalhouse’s tragedy reveals a sinister side, and Tateh’s perseverance through his dismal reality finds him success and joy. It’s a swirling ride of situations and emotions, leaving one contemplating issues of racism, prejudice, justice, and moral ambiguity.
The large amount of musical numbers seamlessly fit within the spoken text, providing variety of rhythms, instrumentations, and emotions. Wealthy characters tend towards even rhythms and waltzes, while the African-American voices deliver most of the ragtime songs. Tateh’s tunes feature more Eastern-European instruments, and his “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” displays Russian-style rapid-fire rhythmic singing. To provide continuity, the title song repeats several times as a motif, either with variation or different lyrics.
For patrons used to visually stunning spectaculars, this one might disappoint, as it stays pretty low-key, although others might not even notice since the individual characters and their stories command the stage. A set of two scaffolding staircases that slide and whirl around the stage, a door, a few chairs, and a piano frame are the predominate set pieces, and simple projections delineate mostly outdoor scenes. Costuming is rather non-descript, although designer Gail Baldoni makes excellent use of color for each group.
With a show having the title of a musical genre, though, the near-absence of major sections of choreography is a bit puzzling. What little is there comes from director Marcia Milgrom Dodge and associate director/choreographer Josh Walden, and much of it lacks the pizazz of the music it moves to.
The overall staging of a couple of numbers, though, proves quite entertaining. The short but cheesy vaudeville segment “Crime of the Century” livens up the show early on, but “What A Game!” conjured the most laughs. Opening with the hilariously ironic remark on how “civilized” baseball is (ahem, Texas Rangers), the section celebrates the crude masculinity of baseball culture and delivers precisely timed movements alongside toe-tapping rhythms.
A few solid performances stand out, as well. Sams’ vocal range and inflections draw the viewer into his joys and struggles, and his portrayal of Coalhouse’s descent into terrorism evokes conflicting sympathetic emotions. Leslie Jackson, though, brings down the house as his love interest Sarah. Clear, powerful vocals depict a woman falling in love, falling into sorrow, then finding hope. Curiano is the most animated, as he conveys an uplifting mood with his physical acting.
And although he didn’t have a speaking role, let’s not forget our local talent James Hayes, who earned the walk-on role of Young Coalhouse. Anthony Taylor also plays this role in other performances.
There are some terrific elements to this production, but they don’t make up aforementioned huge, glaring problems. First, Tuesday night’s sound issues were atrocious. Mic issues frequently pop up at the Music Hall on opening night (a chronic problem I had hoped would’ve resolved with the system upgrades), but the crackling, buzzing, and cutting out that happened went beyond the typical glitches. It was distractingly pervasive through the first 30 minutes of Act One, but the issue popping up throughout the nearly three-hour show (because of length and themes, it’s recommended for ages 10 and up).
Second, the live orchestra has been banished in favor of a virtual orchestra that combines with originally recorded music samples. So, basically, our friends in the pit have been replaced with robots. The giveaway on opening night was the sound rising or lowering suddenly to compensate for the mic issues with the actors. But even without that, the music is quieter and detract from the live experience. Much like recorded music for ballet, it leaves no room for flexibility with the performers.
When we asked a DSM representative about it, we received this statement:
The new tour of Ragtime features a superbly crafted 30-piece orchestration that recreates the entire breadth and scope of the original Broadway production. The tour travels with a musical delivery system engineered with state-of-the-art virtual instrument technology combined with original recorded musical samples to produce the entire spectrum demanded to support the emotional fabric of Ragtime.
That’s highly debatable. Plus, this information was not posted in the lobby or the program. And what a disservice to Flaherty's magnificent score. Eschewing the live orchestra might be acceptable in Mamma Mia! or lesser jukebox musicals, but not here.
Combine the fact of the non-Equity tour with no orchestra and sound issues, and one has to ask if Dallas audiences got their money’s worth. Tickets for this production should be lowered from DSM’s standard prices with Equity tours and live orchestras.
Ragtime’s variety of songs and thoughtful messages bring a nice change to the usual dazzling, jazz-handsy, escapist productions often seen in touring venues. It’s too bad we don’t get it in all its glory.