There is power in numbers. With 53 glorious cast members cleverly moved about the small Hillbarn Theatre stage, director Lee Foster's production of "Ragtime" excels over an imperfect script.
The historic musical contains some of the most beautiful ballads and ensemble music ever written for theatre, but its first act verges on boring due to its almost two hour length. The story follows the Ragtime era as immigrants and African Americans clash with the white upper class while grasping at the American dream.
Although it starts with a chilling number in which the entire cast sings the title song, the script takes its time developing characters. But with a bit of patience and some appreciation for the great talent on display, audiences reach the heart of the show about half way through the first act. The plot suddenly becomes intoxicating when African Americans Sarah and Coalhouse Walker Jr. enter the picture, a new mother and father searching for love and justice.
As played by Leslie Ivy and Carmichael Blankenship, the couple adds a much-needed special ingredient, bringing life back into the otherwise lacking script. Blankenship could use a more compelling and confident demeanor as Coalhouse, but he has the smooth, deep voice of an angel. Ivy delivers the best vocals of the show and constantly draws the audience in with her incredible, raw acting, leaving tears in many eyes by the end of the first act.
Annmarie Martin is a close second in standout talent. Martin, who so brilliantly performed the role of Norma Desmond in Contra Costa Musical Theatre's recent production of "Sunset Boulevard," plays a woman torn between her husband's version of right and what her heart tells her is right. Martin is one of two equity actors in the production. Her stirring facial expressions and moving vocals are the backbone of the production.
But, really, the entire cast acts as the leading star of Hillbarn's production. The ensemble provides consistently strong vocals. Young Jon Toussaint shines from start to finish as Little Boy. Steven Ennis makes an inspired and relatable Younger Brother. Helen Laroche possesses a convincing and powerful voice as anarchist Emma Goldman. Tyler Bennet delivers a touching performance as immigrant father, Tateh. Joe Murphy plays an appealing Houdini. Amie Shapiro takes audiences on a fling with her joyous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit. Erica Richardson delivers a memorable power ballad as Sarah's Friend. And they all come with the perfect singing voices needed to give the music of "Ragtime" its inherent power.
The Hillbarn production also comes with a live orchestra led my musical director Greg Sudmeier, creative choreography from Jayne Zaban, gorgeous sets by Robert Broadfoot, and lovely lighting by Don Coluzzi and Valerie Clear to set the scenes. "Ragtime" may take some patience to get used to, but with director Lee Foster's well-cast staging of the much-loved musical, the show becomes a must-see sellout.
Through September 23