Review: Overlong, overwrought 'Ragtime' misses mark for grand opening

When the folks at Theatre Lawrence imagined opening night of their brand new building, they likely had something other than a plodding, hand-wringing show rife with technical and design problems in mind. Unfortunately, “Ragtime’s” paper-thin plot and running time of nearly three hours from opening curtain to final bows got the 36-year-old theater company off to an uncertain start in its new digs despite some strong individual performances.

With a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, “Ragtime” is set in the first decade of the 20th century. Telling the stories of three very different families — upper-class whites from New Rochelle, African-Americans from Harlem and Jewish immigrants from Latvia — the show intends to say something about the quintessential American experience of the last century and the importance and struggles of change by wrapping it all in the music of the period. The stories of the three principle characters — Mother (Sarah Young), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Robert McNichols, Jr.) and Tateh (Patrick Kelly) — are interwoven, but only Mother gets enough time onstage to truly establish any kind of real character development.

McNichols and Kelly pour their hearts into their roles to try to make them three-dimensional, but neither is given much to work with in terms of growth from beginning of the show to end. Coalhouse, in particular, is barely seen until 40 minutes into the first act (he does appear in the overly long opening number), and he isn’t given much to do, plot-wise, until the second act, when he essentially becomes a terrorist, vanishes from the story altogether and then surfaces again at the end for the predictable and overwrought climax. Conversely, Tateh seems to be important in the early part of the show, but he, too, vanishes in the second act and then re-emerges improbably successful before disappearing again until the denouement.

In between, we are given number after number, stretching out the story, clumsily piling on the history lessons and making us wonder how and if it all fits together. Several songs add nothing to the show except running time. “Crime of the Century” tells the story of celebrity personality Evelyn Nesbit (Sarah May Pippitt) and adds virtually nothing to the plot. “What a Game!” is supposed to be about a failed bonding attempt between Father (Bruce Douglas) and Little Boy (Liam Elliott), but nothing comes of it whatsoever. And there are cameo appearances by historical figures such as J.P. Morgan (Charles Whitman), Henry Ford (Peter Hansen), and Harry Houdini (Brody Horn), none of which is necessary. Only famed anarchist Emma Goldman (Amy Kelly) adds anything to the story with her presence.

“Ragtime” is slow, unfocused and fails to say anything important about America or the time period beyond the facts that it was turbulent and people had dreams.

The ponderous nature of the show was unfortunately worsened by a number of technical problems both in the production and the design of the facility. Theatre Lawrence effectively maintained the intimacy of its old building despite a vastly larger stage and almost twice as many seats. But the rows are narrow, making the otherwise comfortable chairs feel cramped. Because of the design, you can’t put your feet under the seat in front of you, creating an uncomfortable experience for patrons with long legs.

Moreover, the rows are long, with few aisles, making them difficult to exit quickly. That, along with long lines in the bathrooms and at the bar, led to a 25-minute intermission. The increased seating capacity seemed to be working against the theater, even though there are vastly more toilets than at the old building.

Technically, the show was beset with problems. All of the leads were mic’ed, but they were potted up so loud that, when an unmic’ed actor had a line or a solo, it could barely be heard. Worse, several of the microphones were broadcasting static when the performers sang or spoke. In particular, Jake Leet’s mic was so full of static he sounded like he was making a call from outer space.

Director Mary Doveton made a lot of use of the theater’s 30-foot revolve, but it rotated so slowly many scene changes moved every bit as glacially as the plot. Doveton and set designers Jack Riegle and Phil Schroeder also made a curious decision in the show’s design. With a spacious new stage, they opted for a minimalist set. There were several large pieces — most impressively a full-size, wooden Model-T roadster — that were moved on and off, but the stage was otherwise bare, and we saw all the pieces before the first act was over. Consequently, the underused space sucked a lot of the intended pageantry out of the show.

And yet “Ragtime” does have its moments. Flaherty’s music and Ahren’s lyrics are gorgeous and often stirring. Music director Mary Baker created impressive sound on the group numbers, especially the Act I finale, “’Til We Reach that Day.”

Many of Theatre Lawrence’s longtime actors seemed inspired by the opportunity to open the new building, giving their finest performances. Leet is exceptional as the fiery Younger Brother. He sings beautifully, and, without overdoing it, he perfectly captures the archetypal young man searching for what he should believe in.

Patrick Kelly is mesmerizing as Tateh. He plays father to his own daughter Brynn onstage, and not only do the two have natural chemistry but they also provide some of the show’s most uplifting moments. His song, “Gliding,” in which he comforts her fears, is sweet and moving.

Newcomer McNichols’ lyric baritone is easily the best male voice to grace a Theatre Lawrence production in at least the last 10 years, if not ever. It might be the best voice the troupe has ever had. He infuses Coalhouse Walker with passion and beauty, making one wish he had more scenes.

Genée Figuieras has the daunting task of playing opposite him. Not only does she hold her own against his formidable voice, she complements him perfectly with a floating mezzo that dazzles both in their duet, “Wheels of a Dream,” and in her haunting solo, “Your Daddy’s Son.”

But as strong as many of the individual performances are, they simply can’t overcome the slow, meandering plot, the technical difficulties and the design issues. As the perfect grand opening for Theatre Lawrence’s new facility, “Ragtime” misses the mark by a long way.

To be fair, the creative staff has only been in the building for a few weeks. Attempting to get a show on the stage in that short period of time was extremely challenging. One hopes and assumes that, as Theatre Lawrence grows into its new space, future productions will be much stronger.


Law2000 9 years, 7 months ago

Couldn't they come up with a better "Opening Night" -- who picked this one. Not a good start for the "newcomers" to see.

geneo 9 years, 7 months ago

I enjoyed every minute of the show.

George_Braziller 9 years, 7 months ago

After several decades it's often better to just walk away gracefully and pass the torch after a major project is finished. Sandra Shaw did it with Bert Nash, Ann Evans did it with the Arts Center. I think it's time for Mary to do the same.

Nothing personal against any of them because all three did great things, but at a certain point things get stale. Get some new blood and life. It's the perfect time.

asixbury 9 years, 7 months ago

I know at least one of the people you mentioned did not leave of their own accord--they were forced out by the snobbish "Lawrence Elite." I'm sure both of the ladies were doing their jobs just fine and it was due to some ridiculous politics that they left (or were forced out).

Amesmb 9 years, 7 months ago

I can't understand how such a beautiful show could receive such a scathing review....

ElephantintheRoom 9 years, 7 months ago

Wow. I couldn’t disagree more. We wanted to see the new building, so we saw Ragtime this past week-end. What an incredible show! Lots of great singing, costume after costume after costume, and an incredibly diverse group of performers – totally fits a Lawrence crowd! Comments about whether the seats are comfortable seems to ignore all the fun that was happening on stage. Maybe this is a typical summer blockbuster where the reviews are complacent but the audience loves it!

borntoplay 9 years, 7 months ago

I find it hard to fathom the total unkindness and lack of generosity in both the review and some of the comments that follow. We should all be celebrating the massive achievement of building this gorgeous new theater in our town. It was made possible by the staff, board of directors and donors of the theater and these talented VOLUNTEERS who put on a difficult and impressive show. I applaud them all. Why pick it apart? What is to be gained by that? There are better things to point out. Like . . .

Speaking of applause, what no one has mentioned are the hundreds of wonderful costumes done by the talented Jane Pennington and crew and the period hairstyles designed and executed by Mary Ann Saunders and her crew. Lastly, how can anyone not acknowledge the unbelievable talent of Sarah Young who blesses us with her singing every time she takes to the stage?

I, for one, look forward to seeing what our gifted Theatre Lawrence people have in store for us for many years to come.

Frank A Janzen 9 years, 7 months ago

As a resident of East Lawrence, the former site at 15th and NH was a short walk away. This new location out where Rock Chalk Park will be is way too far away for me to consider. And the price increases for performances will also keep me away. Too bad. This commercial movement to the far north-west part of Lawrence -- closer to Lecompton -- is not what I want. I'll take downtown any time.

asixbury 9 years, 7 months ago

I find the original location as too inconvenient for me since I live on the west side of Lawrence...not really though. Not everything should be downtown. The distance from east Lawrence and the new theatre is not that much....pretty ridiculous complaint probably due to some type of jealousy?

Sarah_Lockwood 9 years, 7 months ago

The ticket prices have remained the same. However, the theater is now in a special tax district so the tax is 9.85% instead of 8.85%. The caliber of talent that Theatre Lawrence has to offer is outstanding and I look forward to the community being involved in making this new space successful. It is a community theater for the Lawrence community, no matter what zip code it's located in within the city.

Alpenglow 9 years, 7 months ago

Gosh Mr. Phythyon, sounds like you have a personal ax to grind. Perhaps you auditioned for a role in Ragtime but were turned down? Not smart to bite the hand that has fed you. Bitter, party of one..... Yes, it was horribly warm on opening night, but I am sure they took note of that and are making necessary adjustments. We found the production to be incredible on so many fronts. This isn't Broadway in New York City; it's Lawrence, Kansas for gawd sakes. It wasn't perfect, but the glitches were minimal, considering it was the first performance. I am sorry your poison pen waited until the last paragraph "to be fair". We are thrilled that the vision Mary Doveton had for Theatre Lawrence has reached fruition. The enormous impact she has on the arts in our community will endure for years and years and long after she is gone. She'll step down when the timing is right. She has too much class and dignity to do otherwise. Bravo to Mary and the entire crew. Applause!

brunersc 9 years, 7 months ago

 I am always amused when small town critics base most of their unfavorable review of a show based on criticism of the material, rather than the production.  Almost always the material has been favorably received elsewhere, otherwise we would not have selected it.  As a cast member, I am sure there were many things to criticize about our performance.  We are not professionals.  Likewise the technical aspects of our brand new beautiful theater have yet to be mastered and will definitely improve with experience.  The air conditioning has already been rebalanced providing a much better climate for both audience and cast.  
 It is, however somewhat presumptous to give such as negative opinion of a piece of material that ran two years on Broadway and received Tony awards for both score and book.  My opinion, and I also have seen a lot of theater both locally and on Broadway, is that this is a classic of American Theater, perhaps one of the top five, and I feel privileged to have participated in its production and in being able to do it in a beautiful new theater, thanks to the work of Mary Doveton and many others.  I encourage you to see the show and make your own judgement.

Amesmb 9 years, 6 months ago

Well, I figured that the above review was likely unfair since Ragtime is widely considered an exquisite show. I saw it tonight and was proven right. The reviewer obviously didn't get it, even though there's really not that much to get. I'm very glad that the ticket sales have been high in spite of it because it indicates that most Lawrence audience members know better than to listen to reviews, especially those that are obviously unreasonable.

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