“Ragtime,” the Musical, Stuns and Wows, at Berkeley Playhouse

“Ragtime,” the Musical, Stuns and Wows, at Berkeley Playhouse

Terrence McNally’s Jazz Age Portrait Perfect for Now!

by Cindi Stephan

A stellar cast performs a magnificent Tony Award winning musical at just the right time. As the U.S. nears a breaking point, Berkeley Playhouse’s “Ragtime” shows Americans working against inequality and injustice. Musical movements and social change go hand in hand, and the 20s Ragtime Era explodes onstage with race, class and gender struggles, “giving the nation / a new syncopation.” The full title tells the tale: “Ragtime, the Sweeping Musical Epic of Hopes and Dreams in America.”

In tears at times, we feel invigorated by this complex, nearly seamless production. Director William Hodgson brings “Ragtime” to the Berkeley Playhouse with singing and dancing that evoke optimism, struggle, and jubilation. Fictional characters mingle with historical heroes:  Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Henry Ford.

Marissa Rudd (Sarah) and Dave J. Abrams (Coalhouse Walker Jr.). Photos: Ben Krantz

Based on the famed novel by E.L. Doctorow, with show book by Terrence McNally, “Ragtime” takes us to three historical sites: first, suburban New Rochelle, New York; then to the African American Renaissance in Harlem; and then to the  immigrant tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It’s New York in the early 1900s springing to life in front of our eyes.

The show opens with one child’s open hand reaching to another, with the reassuring words “It’s OK.” But everything is not OK at all, as we soon see.

Emma Curtin (Little Girl), Mischa Stephens (Tateh), and Ensemble

Dave J. Abrams plays Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the Harlem jazz pianist, running the emotional gamut perfectly. Walker shows unbreakable spirit and will, as he confronts almost constant attacks and abuse, leading to an amazing and tragic series of events. Marissa Rudd plays Sarah, his beloved, belting out a remorseful Blues lullaby to her baby. Rudd sings powerfully about her agony as a single mom and an oppressed Black woman.

“Ragtime” conjures up New Yorkers who try to reach across cultural divides, while others struggle to keep themselves separate.

Marissa Rudd (Sarah)

When I was a college student abroad in Ghana, I studied African dance and music. I was moved by the role music plays in building bridges between cultures. When I became a parent, I noticed an automatic knowing between mothers…and I concluded that music and maternity were both so inherently human to allow an easy conduit. In “Ragtime,” music and motherhood cross the divide between cultures: the song “Ragtime” “gives the nation / a new syncopation.”

In the musical, parents or guardians of children are the most inclined to understand their shared humanity. The song “Our Children” unites “Tateh” (Mischa Stephens), the poor immigrant Jewish man, with  “Mother” (Mindy Lym), a well-off Christian woman.

Dave J. Abrams (Coalhouse Walker Jr.)

“Ragtime” gets bigger than the Playhouse stage because so many powerful peformances flash in front of our eyes. Add the excellent writing and complex, effective staging and lighting to make a major hit.  The orchestra and especially the piano work critically to create a Jazz Age mood.

Although the themes can be intense for youngsters, they are worth discussing with the kids. Berkeley Playhouse provides a wonderful “Family Guide” to discuss the show with children: family-guide.org

“Ragtime” is well worth seeing today. The show is masterfully performed and profoundly relevant to our current crisis. Don’t miss Director William Hodgson’s newly staged “Ragtime.”

Mindy Lym (Mother)

 “Ragtime”: Directed by William Hodgson, Music Director Daniel Feyer, Choreographer Alex Rodriguez, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, from Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, at Berkeley Playhouse, Berkeley, California, through Sunday, March 18, 2018. Info: berkeleyplayhouse.org

Harlem Ensemble

COALHOUSE WALKER JR  Dave J. Abrams, BOOKER T. WASHINGTON  Anthony Rollins-Mullens, SARAH Marissa Rudd, SARAH’S FRIEND / HARLEM WOMAN Jacqueline Dennis, BLACK LAWYER / HARLEM MAN #3  Johnny Davison, PAS DE DEUX / ENSEMBLE  Chanel Tilghman.

HENSON / HARLEM MAN #2  Marcel Saunders, CLERK / HARLEM MAN #1  The T, YOUNG COALHOUSE (New York Cast)  Joshua Hankerson, YOUNG COALHOUSE (Atlantic City Cast) Samara Minor, ENSEMBLE (New York Cast) Sofia Prieto-Black, ENSEMBLE (Atlantic City Cast) Anaya Matthews.

Immigrant Ensemble

TATEH  Mischa Stephens, EMMA GOLDMAN  Jessica Coker, HARRY HOUDINI / REPORTER #1 Jaron Vesely, CHORINE / ENSEMBLE Ji-Yun Kim, KATHLEEN / ENSEMBLE Courtney Merrell, WELFARE OFFICIAL / ENSEMBLE Keala Freitas, MAN / CONDUCTOR / UMPIRE / BARON’S ASSISTANT Ted Zoldan.

BRIGIT / 1ST TOWNHALL BUREAUCRAT  Briel Pomerantz, ENSEMBLE Serene Hammami, LITTLE GIRL (New York Cast) Emma Curtin, LITTLE GIRL (Atlantic City Cast) Molly Graham, ENSEMBLE / NEWSIE #3 (New York Cast) Simon Bhueller-Riordan, ENSEMBLE / NEWSIE #3 (Atlantic City Cast) Khoa Sands.

New Rochelle Ensemble

FATHER Brian Watson, MOTHER Mindy Lym, MOTHER’S YOUNGER BROTHER Sam Jones, EVELYN NESBIT Andrea Dennison-Laufer, WILLIE CONKLIN / FOREMAN / POLICEMAN / FORD / CANDIDATE Matt Davis, GRANDFATHER / JUDGE / D.A. WHITMAN Don Hardwick, J.P. MORGAN / ADMIRAL PEARY / WHITE ATTORNEY  Scottie Woodard.

2ND TOWNHALL BUREAUCRAT / ENSEMBLE Abbey Williams-Campbell, LITTLE BOY (New York Cast) Elijah Cooper, LITTLE BOY (Atlantic City Cast) Joe Krenn, DANCING GIRL / NEWSIE #2 / ENSEMBLE (New York Cast) Evie Mitchell, DANCING GIRL / NEWSIE #2 / ENSEMBLE (Atlantic City Cast) Orelia Oiknine, ENSEMBLE / NEWSIE #1 (New York Cast) Charlotte Curtin, ENSEMBLE / NEWSIE #1 (Atlantic City Cast) Ellie Broscow.

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