By Nathalie Weinstein
The musical is a strange beast. Though they are often based on serious topics such as the French Revolution (Les Miserable), racial prejudice (Showboat) or the second World War (The Sound of Music), that doesn't stop musical producers from creating Easter-egg-colored sets, over-the-top costumes and including more jazz hands in the choreography than a production of Fosse. The contrast between the singing and dancing and the Nazis, guns and bigots can sometimes be overwhelming to your average theater-goer.
But Portland Center Stage's Ragtime is not your normal musical production. Forgoing the traditional inclination to create a period set in favor of a stark, almost Brechtain stage with what look like large metal doors to divide the scenes, the emphasis is on the story and the music rather than the spectacle. As PCS PR and publications manager Trisha Mead told me, it's a musical for people that don't like musicals. And boy, can this cast sing.
Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime tells the story of three classes, the white elite, a Harlem musician, and a Latvian Jewish family, during the peak popularity of Ragtime music at the turn of the 20th century. Popularized in the red-light districts of American cities, Ragtime music is named for its uneven, syncopated rhythm. And judging by the amount of ladies humming the main theme in the restroom after the show, it's a genre that has stood the test of time.
The star of the show is Coalhouse Walker (played by the amazing Gavin Gregory), a Harlem musician who has traveled to New Rochelle, NY to settle down with Sarah (Rachael Ferrera), who is living with a white family and her newborn baby. In a musical filled with solos (which can sometimes drag down the pace), Gregory along with Susannah Mars (Mother) and Ferrera regularly brought the house down, causing the gentleman to my right (a tough looking man) to be reduced to tears several times throughout the production. Gregory has a voice that demands you sit up and pay attention. Other stand-out performances include the charming Leif Nordby (Tateh), whose musical journey from a poor, Latvian immigrant selling portraits on the street to a career as a Hollywood movie producer stuck out in my mind long after the curtain had fallen.
The production is rooted in history as cameos from personalities such as Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington and Harry Houdini tie together the fictional stories of the three groups. The stripped down stage and muted costumes allowed the audience to focus on the numerous social issues at play in the production, and how racial, economic and social prejudices continue into modern times.
At $30.50 per ticket and up (or $18 for the under 18 set and $23 for students), this is not a show you can afford to miss.
September 22 — Nov. 1, 2009
Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
$45 for adults
$18 for children under 18
$23 for students
Buy tickets at www.pcs.org