Make Time For Ragtime at WBT!

Published: Friday, March 28, 2014 12:00 pm By: Bruce Apar Source: Bruce The Blog

“It’s not where you start but where you finish,” goes the lyric of a Broadway standard by Dorothy Fields. For Broadway musicals, though, the tone, and even success, of a show can hinge on how it starts.  A well-staged, rousing opener lifts audience and cast alike, and it’s off to the races. Recent shows at Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford that most impressed this theatergoer include In the Heights, Oliver and the current Ragtime. It’s no coincidence that each kicked off with the flourish of a memorable production number, or that each was produced by Standing Ovation Studios, whose owner, John Fanelli, is a devout believer in opening big. [For Oliver's "Food, Glorious Food" appetizer, to heighten the theatrical effect, he employed extra child performers who were not present for the rest of the show.]

Ragtime indeed has opened big at Westchester Broadway Theater. Its buzz is well deserved. My daughter Elissa and I enjoyed it with one of the more responsive audiences I’ve seen at this venue. Audience enthusiasm is contagious and affects the whole room, performers included.

The show is an eyeful from start to finish, an achievement accentuated by the spare, highly mobile sets that are a necessity of thrust stage theaters like WBT, where audience members are not only in front of the stage but flank either side of it as well. The scenery “flats” that are a staple of proscenium theaters are impractical for theater in the round or semi-round.

A cast of more than 40, resplendent in period costumes, a working Model “T” Ford that chugs on and off stage, clockwork choreography, and historical characters Harry Houdini and showgirl Evelyn Nesbit suspended in mid-air above the stage are orchestrated into a panoramic parade that never ceases to entertain–or enlighten. We also see Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and J.P. Morgan.

The book, by noted playwright Terrence McNally, does not shrink from underscoring the inhuman social injustices and blatant bigotry visited on minorities and immigrants in early 20th Century New York City. That thread of narrative, invested with music by turns joyous and poignant, gives Ragtime a powerful pathos both affecting and infectious.

The talented principals all are up to the challenge of shifting between large-scale production numbers and intimate moments, led by FaTye as Coalhouse Walker Jr., Victoria Lauzun as Mother, Todd Ritch as Mother’s Younger Brother and Brittney Johnson as Sarah. A standout performance is delivered by Joey Sanzaro as Tateh, a Jewish immigrant and single parent who represents the birth of Hollywood.