For the last 33 years, the respected Bollinger family has owned and operated the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, CA, which offers not only exceedingly well-staged musical-theater productions, but offers delectable multi-course meals, including themed drink specials, amid a welcoming and elegant atmosphere. Focused on always upping the ante for their audience, “Ragtime: The Musical,” which runs through February 24th, is a worthy start to the Pavilion’s 2018 season, as it boasts an astounding 29-person cast, but even more so than that, is a topically relevant piece of live theater that speaks as loudly and poignantly as it ever did before. There is arguably no musical that better illustrates the origins of the American dream, and American splendor, with social development, transformations, conflicts, and consequences therein.
Based on the novel of the same name in 1975 by E.L. Doctorow, with the book by Terrence McNally, moving music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics penned by Lynn Ahrens, the Pavilion’s rendition is a formidable and awe-inspiring entry in the pantheon of “Ragtime” productions since 1996. The early 20th century three-way narrative junction highlights a white-collar family in New Rochelle, NY, depicted mostly by Father, Mother, their Little Boy (Edgar), and Mother’s Younger Brother; the Jewish immigrant population through the eyes of Tateh and his young daughter; and African Americans in Harlem via Colehouse Walker Jr., Sarah, and their infant son. Lining the story are historically accurate and significant luminaries who give the retelling of these true-to-life events additional weight and substance.
Director Greg Hinrichsen has done a splendid job of pacing the three arcs and how they intertwine into not only an incredible visual tableau (assisted by Chuck Ketter’s beautiful brick-laid set), but fit into a tapestry that chronicles how Americans, of all wakes of life, have gotten along with each other, found their own truths, and learned to exercise grit to overcome adversity. Lighting designer Steve Giltner expertly uses blue, purple, and especially red hues to denote moments ranging from the peaceful to the pulse-poundingly perilous, which definitely play a part in how we emotionally absorb the stakes. And, choreographer John Vaughan, as well as musical director Julie Lamoureux, have underscored the history of ragtime music – in all its gloriously syncopated rhythms, counts, and movements – which enjoyed the popularity it did until WWI, before blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll naturally evolved.
The large cast works very well together, not only from a purely acting standpoint, but in producing sonorous sounds and echoes of a past that are still powerfully relevant in the present. The white contingent is introduced first, led by Christanna Rowader as Mother, who portrays one of the most likable characters in the musical. Rowader skillfully gets across her dilemma as a subdued woman during that time period, who is gifted with understanding her growing empowerment with respect to her surroundings – which is especially accentuated with Rowader’s hair-raising, belting vocals in Act II’s “Back to Before.” Playing Rowader’s husband in the show, Father, is John LaLonde, whose character, unlike Mother’s, comes to terms with the changing race relations in the United States at a much more obstinate rate, as evidenced in “New Music.” We almost feel sympathetic toward Father, when LaLonde harnesses his robust and full voice to solemnly make a plea about how time may have passed him by upon returning from his seafaring trip. On the other hand, John McGavin, who plays Mother’s Younger Brother, and is uncle to Andrew Bar’s stellar Edgar, is caught in the middle of the era’s politics, trying to find his purpose as his own man, tempered by his staunch activism, à la Lisa Dyson’s impassioned and confident Emma Goldman. McGavin’s voice is clear, with a lilting quality to it, that conveys his persona’s growing fervency, as in “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square.”
Symbolizing the immigrant struggle of that epoch is Allen Everman as the Latvian Jew, Tateh, who perseveres through inhospitable times to provide for the future of his loving little girl (Carolina Flores). He braves squalid tenement housing, so that he can turn his silhouette beginnings into directorial prominence as the “Baron Ashkenazy” in Hollywood. It is a transformation that is wonderfully suggestive of the notion that people, through sheer grit alone, can change their fortunes. As Tateh, Everman’s girded accent and touching voice denotes his hunger to thrive in “Success,” prior to his vindication with the exultant number, “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” Yet, through it all, Everman sustains his character’s humility, like Rowader’s Mother, and it is in fact their shared scenes (e.g., “Our Children”) that are some of the best in “Ragtime.”
The central figure in “Ragtime,” though, is the African American and Harlem-born professional pianist, Colehouse Walker Jr. (Trance Thompson), who, try as he might to step fully outside of his socioeconomic conditions, inevitably meets a society that is not quite ready for his or his Sarah’s (Jessica Mason) happiness and redemption. Thompson is sincere and compelling as the amiable Walker Jr., who attempts to positively fight through his many obstacles; that is, until widespread discrimination, such as by a trio of truculent firemen (Jason Chacon, Kevin Gasio, Greg Nicholas), and particularly an unimaginable tragedy, becomes to much to bear, turning him into a revengeful vigilante, who threatens to undo the diligent goodwill of Booker T. Washington (the terrific Donovan Wright). Thompson is excellent at using subtle nuances to evince how his Colehouse becomes cynical of the world, despite having still a glimmer of hope for change (“Make Them Hear You”). Moreover, Thompson’s tender vocals mix mellifluously with Mason’s (who solos the heartbreaking “Your Daddy’s Son”) and the two are spectacular in their duets of “Wheels of a Dream” and “Sarah Brown Eyes.”
Last, but not least, is Cheyenne Omani’s Evelyn Nesbit, who brings a much-needed frivolity and lightheartedness to the solemnity of the musical, and Orlando Montes’ Harry Houdini, whose muscular appearance and characterizations vivify the spirit of the anything-can-happen time frame that sparked the melting-pot multitude that we now make up in the United States. Joining them in the ensemble are Tony Winkel as Henry Ford, Jamie Snyder as J.P. Morgan, Bob Bell as the Grandfather, Isaac James Dawson as Little Colehouse, RaShonda Johnson as Sarah’s Friend, Madeline Ellingson, Patricia Jewel, DarRand Hall, Amanda Knight, Mary Murphy Nelson, Lauren Patrice, Jabriel Shelton, and E.Y. Washington.
Needless to say, the Candlelight Pavilion’s “Ragtime” is highly recommended for being a showcase of not only engrossing acting and singing, but for clearly elucidating the motifs that constituted what it was like to live in our country in the early 1900s. A century ago, we were experiencing social discord and polarization among the classes. The irony is that, despite having made many inroads in being empathetic and understanding of one another, we still have quite a ways to go to realize our potential as a collective people. This version of “Ragtime” cogently reminds us of where our diverse nation came from, where it’s heading, and what is required of us to do our part as humanitarian citizens.
For more information about “Ragtime” and the Candlelight Pavilion’s 2018 season, please visit candlelightpavilion.com