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Stunning “Ragtime” at University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (Review) April 17, 2010

Posted by ronannarbor in Ann Arbor, Entertainment, musical theater, Theatre.
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The University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre Program has another stunning success on their hands. As usual, all performances are sold out, so beg, borrow, or take up any friend’s offer of an extra ticket to see this wonderful production. Seen on sold-out Friday night, this production proves once again why it is one of the top such programs in the country.

(Top) The entire cast of RAGTIME. (Bottom) Hava Kaplan, A.J. Holmes (photos courtesy of University of Michigan, 2010)

RAGTIME is one of those shows that stirs the soul (even though you are fully aware you are being shamelessly manipulated by the plot and storyline) and makes you feel something throughout it’s three hour run. From the extraordinary opening number featuring the full ensemble, to the stirring small-family unit finale. It’s one of my 10 favorite modern musicals. I saw it in the final weeks of it’s many-month Toronto development pre-Broadway, and couldn’t fall asleep for hours after walking back to my hotel room. The same thing occurred last night. Not without its problems (Grandfather has been whittled down to an afterthought, and a major character dies and is replaced by a new spouse with three lines of dialogue), the show is none-the-less spot-on in capturing three very different world-view experiences in turn of the century America (the previous turn-of-the-century, that is!).

Director Mark Madama has done a splendid job of directing his very talented ensemble cast (and the show is a true ensemble piece) mixing  large full-stage spectacle with quiet intimate reflective moments. The show’s three hour length never feels too long, nor too hurried. Choreographer Lyndy Franklin Smith does wonders with every musical number, and by the time the show reaches “Gettin’ Ready Rag” you want to jump onstage and join in the fun. Cynthia Kortman Westphal’s musical direction is top-notch and the cast sounds fantastic both individually and in ensemble. Jessica Hahn’s costumes and Dawn Rivard’s wig-work are great. It’s all well-lit and designed by David Neville, and kinda-well sound-mixed by Jim Lillie. The sound occasionally popped and crackled, but not to the point of annoyance nor distraction. That is bound to happen in a show where every single cast member is on a body-mic.

Performance-wise, the true standout in an excellent ensemble cast is A.J. Holmes as Tateh. His voice is terrific, but his acting brings life to this difficult role that ranges from broad energetic moments to quiet internalized grief, where a twinkling in his eye says more than words ever could. Bravo, AJ.

Equally strong performances are presented by clear-voiced Kent Overshown at Coalhouse; Britney Coleman as Sarah; Amanda Choate (Mother); Tyler Brunsman (Father); Joe Carroll (Younger Brother); Marken Greenwood (Emma Goldman) and Alle-Faye Monka (Evelyn Nesbit). The children in the show (Milo Tucker-Meyer and Hava Kaplan) are also terrific.

All of the featured performers are equally strong – and the payoff is a terrific and emotional finale, with a near-instant standing ovation. The script has manipulated you to tears. The cast has manipulated you to that ovation.

My one criticism: with very rare exception, I abhor orchestras on stage. This is not one of those exceptions. I know the recent Broadway trend has been to place the full orchestra on stage (Chicago, the Ragtime revival, Wonderful Town), but I hate it. It detracts from what is happening on stage, and Ragtime is a show that is written in clean, minimalist scenes. To have the percussionist bobbing and weaving across an 8 foot orchestra space, and the harp bopping back and forth while the Tuba player switches from one bright and shiny instrument to another bright and shiny instrument is merely distracting. Don’t get me wrong, they sound fantastic in this production. But in this case, quiet moments on stage that should be actors alone in a spotlight, are backed by distracting orchestra moves in silhouette that pull you out of the moment.

Congratulations to the University of Michigan Musical Theater Program for another fantastic production. Good luck seniors in your annual New York showcase! And to those who don’t hold tickets for the show, this is your reminder (as I did last year after 42nd Street) that tickets go on sale a year in advance, and season tickets as well as individual tickets can be purchased long in advance. And they have to be. This is by-far the highest quality musical theater you will see all year in Ann Arbor. Next spring’s Brigadoon is sure to be an equal stunner.


1. Tweets that mention Stunning “Ragtime” at University of Michigan Musical Theatre Program (Review) « Ron’s Random Musings from Ann Arbor -- Topsy.com - April 18, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by A.J. Holmes, msalicenutting. msalicenutting said: Pssst. AJ's pretty okay in RAGTIME. http://bit.ly/bCou6m […]

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