Monday, May 28, 2012


Special to TorSun
28 MAY 2012
R: 5/5

Pictured: Alana Hibbert, Thom Allison

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — RAGTIME, like the nation whose story it tells, is a big, sprawling affair that almost defies any stage that might try to contain it. And while this oh-so-American musical might be considered an unusual choice for the Shaw Festival in a year marking the bicentenary of the War of 1812, in which this little town played a big part of course, it proved Saturday in its opening performance at the Festival Theatre to be not only a popular, but perhaps, a perfect choice.

Besides, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel and adapted to the stage by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), it has an established Canadian pedigree. Premièred in 1996 by Garth Drabinsky’s LiveEnt, it went on to enjoy a successful Broadway run, winning a brace of Tony nominations and awards, as well as considerable critical acclaim along the way.

And while the Shaw’s production may evoke memories of that earlier production, it never suffers from subsequent comparisons, its smaller stage and more limited resources well, even beautifully, disguised by the combined artistry of director Jackie Maxwell, designer Sue LePage and choreographer Valerie Moore, bolstered by a hugely impressive creative team. It more than makes up for in intimacy what it lacks in spectacle.

Set in and around New York in the early 20th century, RAGTIME braids three storylines into a quintessential American tale. It begins with an upper middle class white family, led by Father, a self-involved patriarch played with perhaps too heavy a dollop of unction by Ben Campbell. When Father decides to go exploring, Mother (Patty Jamieson) steps into the breach, discovering a broader world than she’d ever imagined, although not as broad as that uncovered by her Younger Brother (Evan Alexander Smith).

She also discovers an abandoned baby, the son of Sarah (Alana Hibbert), a black servant, and her paramour, a charismatic ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Thom Allison). About the same time, Mother’s path intersects that of Tateh (Jay Turvey), a Jewish immigrant and his ailing daughter, fled to America from Eastern Europe, only to become mired, for a time, in the grinding poverty they fled. Against an ever-shifting human backdrop that throws famous folk like Booker T. Washington (Aadin Church), Emma Goldman (Kate Hennig), notorious showgirl Evelyn Nesbitt (Julie Martell), Henry Ford (Peter Millard) and Harry Houdini (Kelly Wong) into their sphere, the three families explore an American dream that morphs quickly into a nightmare and, for the lucky, back into that dream again.

Though one might quibble with a very few of her individual choices, Maxwell nonetheless forges her extensive cast into a truly impressive ensemble that grabs an audience by its heartstrings at the top of the show and never lets go, tackling not only Moore’s often-inventive choreography, but a score served up under the fine musical direction of Paul Sportelli, with highly disciplined artistry as well.

But while it is the entire company that carries this production aloft, it truly soars on the wings of a few individual performances, capped by Allison’s carefully crafted, powerful turn, a turn often matched by Jamieson, who brings an aching sense of perplexed humanity to her performance. In supporting turns, look for particularly fine work from Hennig, Wong, Church and Millard —  frontmen for one of the hardest working ensembles on a Canadian stage.

This production leaves one with the suspicion that not only has RAGTIME ripened over the past 20 years, but that, as decanted by the Shaw Festival in a world of Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin, it just might make 2012 a vintage year.

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