Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Glorious Music of Something Beginning

Review: Ragtime in Concert
Ragtime concert director Stafford Arima with stars Norm Lewis, Lea Salonga, and Manoel Felciano

There were many stars on the stage of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall during last night’s concert presentation of the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrance McNally musical Ragtime, but over the course of the evening it became clear that the biggest star was the work itself.  A staggering masterpiece virtually unequalled by anything in the musical theatre cannon, Ragtime juggles its interweaving narratives with a breathtaking assurance that is a feat unto itself, with the Flaherty/Ahrens score serving up an unending parade of some of the most soul-stirring music ever composed for the Broadway stage.  When the writers joined the cast onstage for the final bow, the unassuming trio fittingly received a thunderous ovation befitting a work of this magnitude.

Ragtime’s score draws upon a host of distinctly American musical genres, all of which were excellently rendered by the 36-piece orchestra under the baton of conductor Sheilah Walker.  Few musicals manage to have the breadth and musical variety of Ragtime while remaining a sonically coherent whole, but between Flaherty’s writing and the orchestra’s excellent playing nary a note sounded out of place.  In addition to the principals, many of whom were past Tony winners, the ensemble was rounded out by veterans of various other Ragtime productions and a hundred-strong chorus which gave the sumptuous score with even more oomph than usual.  The cast’s rendition of the sprawling opening number was positively electric, as was their take on the soaring ballad “New Music” and the triumphant final reprise of “Wheels of a Dream” that serves as the show’s finale.  But the truly transcendent moment came during the Act I closer “Till We Reach That Day,” which steadily built from a mournful solo sung by the sensational NaTasha Yvette Williams into a roof-rattling crescendo with an emotional intensity that shook the audience to its very core.

Among the principals, Tony-winner Lea Salonga made the strongest impression with her gloriously sung and exceedingly well-acted Mother.  After a somewhat tentative start which perhaps stemmed from overplaying the character’s reserved nature, Salonga steadily grew in confidence and intensity throughout the night to deliver a stunning sucker-punch of a performance.  By the time she reached Mother’s big ballad “Back to Before” near the end of the second act, Salonga’s command of the stage and inner strength fully enveloped the cavernous hall, creating a genuine showstopper which was appropriately greeted by rapturous applause.

As Tateh, a poor Jewish immigrant pursuing the American dream, Manoel Felciano (Tobias in the John Doyle-helmed Sweeney Todd) brought tremendous warmth and a soothing tenor to his many ballads, with his rendition of “Gliding” proving particularly moving.  Felciano also shared a genuine chemistry with Salonga that made their two duets (“Nothing Like the City” and “Our Children”) immensely satisfying.  The gifted actor held everyone in rapt attention whenever he was onstage, and it’s a shame New York audiences haven’t had more chances to appreciate this gifted actor’s many talents.

Rounding out the show’s central trio was Norm Lewis as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., the black piano player from Harlem struggling to rise above the many indignities he faced at the hands of intolerant bigots.  Lewis seemed less assured than Salonga and Felciano, failing to fully convey Coalhouse’s quiet dignity and occasionally struggling to meet the demands of Flaherty and Ahrens’ score. Despite these problems he still managed to sell the rousing ballad “Make Them Hear You,” even if the performance failed to fully eclipse the ghost of Brian Stokes Mitchell in the original Broadway company.

Michael Arden did excellent work a Mother’s Younger Brother, communicating the restless aimlessness of youth while using his piercing tenor to effortlessly reach the back of the balcony.  As Father, Howard McGillin remained true to his character’s racist tendencies while simultaneously showing Father’s softer side, thereby keeping the character from descending into cartoonish villainy.  Tyne Daly was a veritable force of nature as real-life anarchist Emma Goldman, and young Lewis Grosso made for a charmingly precocious Little Boy.

Unfortunately, there was one obvious weak link in the cast, and that was the Sarah of Patina Miller.  Any actress tackling the role of Coalhouse’s doomed lover has the unenviable task of living up to the memory of Audra McDonald’s legendary Tony-winning performance, but even grading on a curve the Sister Act star failed to impress.  Her voice is ill-suited to the role, as the belting on which Miller’s made her name is stylistically inappropriate to classically-influenced show, and in attempting to avoid that trap she became too preoccupied to give a good performance.  “Your Daddy’s Son,” one of the show’s most gut-wrenching songs, fell oddly flat when Miller sang it, although the actress mostly regained control of the role after that initial (and major) misstep.

As the inaugural production of Manhattan Concert Productions’ Broadway Series, this Ragtime has set an exceedingly high bar for any future installments.  Hopefully the organization will continue producing star-studded mountings of shows whose size and/or subject matter make them risky commercial ventures but that don’t necessarily fit the obscure Golden Age offerings City Center’s Encores! specializes in.  Even with a few hiccups, the evening was a resounding success, and yet another example of the unfettered brilliance of Flaherty and Ahrens’ most famous work.

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