Ragtime Has No Live Orchestra

25 March 2016

Leslie Jackson & Chris Sams. Photo by Scott Suchman
Ragtime opened to a full audience last night at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. The original 1998 Broadway production received 12 Tony nominations and won for Best Orchestrations, Best Score and Best Book of a Musical, rightly so. So how does this non-equity U.S. national tour compare?

For starters and this is a major complaint -- the non-equity tour has NO orchestra! There is a conductor listed but the orchestra pit is dark and the sound is synthesized. For a musical that won a Tony for Best Orchestrations, that is a major disappointment and let down. I understood going in to the show that this was a non-equity tour but it was not necessarily that obvious to patrons  who shelled out up to $85 a ticket. And Theater League's description reads "RAGTIME features a 28-piece orchestra." Perhaps in the studio recording the canned music? But it definitely was not the case on Thursday's performance at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Chris Sams and the citizens of New Rochelle, N.Y. in RAGTIME. Photo by Scott Suchman.
The cast is fairly strong and they are for the most part able to carry the gorgeous numbers by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens made famous by the likes of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie. Standouts are Kate Turner as Mother and Chris Sams as Coalhouse Walker Jr. Kate Turner's crystal clear voice carries up to the balcony and her Mother is strong, intelligent and respectable. Chris Sams' Coalhouse is dignified and passionate and he especially shines during his duets with Leslie Jackson (Sarah) where their voices intertwine gloriously. Unfortunately some rough spots include two of the leading cast -- Younger Brother (played unevenly by Donald Coggin) and Tateh (Matthew Curiano whose poignant Act 1 numbers fail to move the audience while his humorous Act II number is brilliant). Strong performances from the supporting cast include Jeffrey Johnson II (Booker T. Washington) & Sandy Zweir (Emma Goldman).
Kate Turner & Chris Sams. Photo by Scott Suchman.
The strong performances by Kate Turner and Chris Sams are definitely the show's strengths. But does the lack of an orchestra make this one a pass? I hesitate to say... 

The other positive about this show has to be the timeliness of the message. As Chris Sams said in our earlier conversation, "if you turn on the news, you can't help but see the parallels (with the show)." There are the immigrant struggles, the hot headed vigilantes, the innocents who are unreasonably targeted due to fear and the every-man who is affected by society's constant change. It makes for a great backdrop to a history/current affairs discussion.

A questionable aspect about this show has to be the stripped down staging, further stripped down from the 2009 Broadway revival. Gone is the real Model T (of the 1998 Broadway show) and the brilliant multi-level staging (from 1998 & 2009). In its place are a skeletal car and piano and two interlocking staircases that are wheeled around on stage from scene to scene. Some would say that the new staging allows for the audience to better focus on the story. Perhaps? But what about the fact that the sets are distracting and laughable? Unfortunately, the tour's staging ends up detracting from the show.

This is a very disappointing example of a national tour (even a non-equity tour) and even compared to the Cabrillo Music Theatre's 2004 production starring Bets Malone as Mother it is found lacking. If you do go, I am sure you will find yourself enjoying the musical performances and the story but be aware of the lackings before you shell out your hard earned money.

Dates: 24 March - 27 March 2016
For tickets: Try Ticketmaster or the Box Office and if at all possible try for a center seat, even if it is further back or upstairs.
Parking: $8 cash (parking structure)

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