Portland Center Stage didn’t take the easy road in selecting Ragtime for their 2009-2010 season. Ragtime is a huge production, with a large cast, quickly changing scenes and children who play two key singing roles. Given the complexity and scale of the show, it’s a little surprising that a regional theater company would try to tackle such a large production, especially in a recession when production funds don’t flow as freely.
Director Chris Coleman seems aware of the issues of scale in his production of Ragtime and places his trust in his performers and their ability to come together to fill in the spaces where set pieces and backdrops would traditionally be. At first I didn’t like the stark staging of Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. G.W. Mercier’s design consists of a bare patterned wood floor, a few chairs and four massive swinging doors that open and close throughout the production. That’s it. As the production rolled on I found that I did really warm to the set, due in large part to the phenomenal lighting design and pitch-perfect staging of the actors. By the middle of the first act I found myself completely lost in the world of Ragtime.
In addition to the phenomenal lighting, a lot of credit goes to the performers, who absolutely commit to seeing and interacting with objects that aren’t there on stage. There’s one moment when actor Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano that is truly magical. There’s no doubt that he’s playing piano, it’s just not there. As the production progresses there are a number of pretty sophisticated transitions which happen seamlessly – no small feat when you have twenty four people on stage.
One of the reasons Ragtime has such a large cast is that it is much more a portrait of a period in American history than a conventional narrative. At its core is a story of a Ragtime piano player and the struggles surrounding the woman he loves, but the show uses this main throughline to tell dozens of little stories. Terrence McNally does a fantastic job pulling E.L. Doctorow’s novel together for the stage. All the right pieces are there to present a mural of a pivotal time of change in history. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t as strong as the adaptation.
There are some strong moments musically in Ragtime, especially when the ensemble come together and their interweaving narrative threads unite into a single chorus and there are at least two solo numbers which are strong enough to bring down the house (one performed by Gavin Gregory and the other by Susannah Mars). But none of the songs get stuck in your head and I can’t see myself humming anything from Ragtime anytime soon.
In terms of the performance, there’s a lot to like about Portland Center Stage’s Ragtime. Most notably is Gavin Gregory who is the absolute stand out of this cast. Gregory brings such an amazing emotional presence to stage and is so vocally talented that it’s impossible not to be captivated. I’d recommend running out to see this production of Ragtime for Gregory’s performance alone. He’s that good. Ragtime is an ensemble piece and while Gregory is the standout there are a number of other extremely strong performances including Susannah Mars who is excellent, Danny Rothman who does a tremendous job with a role that could have easily fallen into the background, and Alex Thede, a sixth grader who is an absolute inspiration to any young aspiring actor or actress.
The only performance I didn’t care for was Leif Norby who is horribly miscast as Tateh, an immigrant from Latvia who comes to America to find a better life. Norby, decked out in a horridly fake beard, does a caricature of an immigrant that is cartoonish and amateurish. His character goes through a transformation in the show that is played so rough by Norby that it’s completely lost, and the following duet between Leif Norby and Susannah Mars is the real low point of the show. The only saving grace of Tateh’s storyline is Anna Jane Bishop who plays Tateh’s daughter. While she doesn’t have a lot of lines, Bishop’s stage presence is extremely strong, especially for a ten year old.
Norby aside, the production of Ragtime in its entirely is really something to experience. Director Chris Coleman has demonstrated with Ragtime how a regional theater can tackle a very ambitious production intelligently, thoughtfully and skillfully. There are a lot of choices out there for Portland Center Stage to select from and I’m very pleased to see them aim high and tackle something that other theater companies might dismiss as ‘too big’ or ‘too complex’ for a regional theater.
Ragtime is a very satisfying evening of theater, and when you add Gavin Gregory and his performance to that mix it makes it an evening of theater not to be missed.
For more information on Portland Center Stage’s production of Ragtime: