Review: Ragtime

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

Ragtime dials the clock way back, looking at the emergence of ragtime in the 1900s. It doesn’t tell the story of that music’s evolution; instead, it uses it as a metaphor for the convulsive changes then happening in America. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s epic novel set in New York’s combustible melting pot, Ragtime in fact weaves together three distinct stories — those of a sheltered New Rochelle housewife, a indomitable Jewish immigrant on the poverty-stricken Lower East Side and a passionate young Harlem piano player.

I didn’t see the 1998 Broadway debut of Ragtime; my first exposure to it was Stafford Arima’s 2005 production at Paper Mill Playhouse. The Arima production and this one (directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge) share a heated minimalism, as well as a lead actor, Quentin Earl Darrington as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker. In both productions, Darrington makes Coalhouse the soul of the show, playing him with real danger, passion and sorrow.

Other standout performances include Christiane Noll giving a surprising wryness to the WASPy “Mother” and Bobby Steggart as surely the most earnest (and cutest) “Young Brother” ever. Robert Petkoff brings great humanity and humor to the role of Orchard Street artist turned filmmaker Tateh. Derek McLane’s set is a masterpiece of functional elegance and flexibility. Santo Loquasto’s costumes tell a story all by themselves, especially his vaudeville costumes for Evelyn Nesbit.

As for the show itself, I’m not in love with the tendency of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist to do “stand downstage center” arias. Ragtime’s strongest moment are the ensemble numbers, including the rousing title song (which Dodge has stage with great intensity and intelligence) and “New Music.” All in all, a very strong entry in the musical season.

For tickets, click here.

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Review: The Understudy

Originally reviewed for GaySocialites.com.

Is The Understudy a love letter or a poison pen letter to the theatre? Playwright Theresa Rebeck looks at one of the most infamous positions in the theatre: the understudy. The play, Rebeck’s best and funniest in years, certainly celebrates what the theatre is capable of, but it also has piercing insight into hard show biz truths.

It’s fitting that the “understudy rehearsal” which makes up the play is for a Broadway production of a newly discovered play by Franz Kafka. The Understudy reveals the ways in which show business is like one of Kafka’s nightmare bureaucracies — everybody is standing in for somebody else more powerful.

We may initially think that Harry (rubber-limbed Justin Kirk) is the titular understudy, but Jake (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, looking great in a tight t-shirt) the minor movie star whose role Harry’s “covering” is himself understudying the role of an even bigger movie star, the unseen Bruce. And Roxanne (Julie White, hilarious as always) may be a much-loved (in more ways than one) stage manager, but she also has acting ambitions herself. Rebeck even hints at the idea that commercial theatre as a whole is a much-abused “understudy” of the movie industry, aping its moves and jealously eyeing its bigger paychecks.

Beyond all this, however, we get to see glimpses of the dream that motivates all three characters. Harry has a great instinct for tone and physicality, Jake, real passion for the philosophical seriousness of Kafka, Roxanne, penetrating insight into the possibilities of cross-gender casting. When all three do the Kafka play’s finale, an absurd yet passionate dance, it’s a moving homage to what the theatre can do when humble artistry triumphs commerce-driven nerves.

For tickets, click here.

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