Performers Brittany Andam and Conlon Bonner tenderly sing the duet “Wheels of a Dream” during the Music Theatre West production of the musical ‘Ragtime’ that debuted in the Ellen Eccles Theatre on Sept. 15.
LOGAN – Music Theatre West took a risky gamble by staging a musical with a powerful, timely message and that gamble paid off brilliantly on opening night.
The theater troupe’s production of Ragtime featured everything that audiences have come to expect from MTW shows – outstanding performances from local actors and actresses, classy choreography, beautiful costumes, elaborate orchestration and marvelous choral work.
Given Cache Valley’s largely homogeneous theater community, however, the heart and soul of Ragtime could only be performed by African-American actors and actresses recruited from the Wasatch Front and their participation in the production made it a showcase for their prodigious talents.
The combination of those local and imported capabilities made Ragtime an electrifying snapshot of an ugly time in history set to gorgeous music.
Ragtime focuses on three families in the early 20th Century – an African-American couple, an upper-class white family and a Jewish immigrant widower and his daughter – whose separate visions of the American dream are changed forever when their lives become entangled unexpectedly.
At its center, Ragtime belongs to Conlon Bonner as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician who tries to avenge the murder of his lover through then-inconceivable acts of urban terrorism.
Bonner carries the action of the musical squarely on his shoulders with equal measures of passion, strength and dignity. He can also dance up and down the walls, by the way.
Bonner shares the musical’s show-stopper “Wheels of a Dream” with the radiant Brittany Andam.
Ms. Andam is a show-stopper herself, with perfect soprano voice and a stunning stage presence.
Together, she and Bonner make every note of that duet pure gold.
The African-American performers are strongly supported by equally multi-talented local cast members, including standouts like Celeste Baillio as the conflicted Mother of the suburban family, Jared Rounds as her idealistic but naïve brother and Kyle Cottam as the immigrant father Tateh.
Despite a history of previous comedic parts as long as your arm, Ms. Baillio clearly demonstrates that she was wasted in those roles. Her rendition of the second act anthem “Back to Before” was riveting.
Playwright Terrence McNally has peppered his script with real-life historical figures commenting wryly on the events in Ragtime.
Chief among those cameos is the towering Krispin Banks in a memorable portrayal of Booker T. Washington.
Other performers in historic roles include Barbie Haggerty as Evelyn Nesbit, the infamous girl in the red velvet swing; Sarah McKenna as Emma Goldman, the Russian anarchist and labor organizer; Benjamin Pedersen as escape artist Harry Houdini; Aaron Lacey as industrialist Henry Ford; and Cary Youmans as tycoon J.P. Morgan.
In contrast to its disturbing images of racial prejudice and injustice, Ragtime also features some exceptionally lovely moments.
One of the best of those is Cottam and Ms. Baillio on stage singing tenderly about “Our Children.”
The highlight of another poignant scene is the bereaved Coalhouse dancing with the ghost of Ms. Andam while they wistfully sing “Sarah Brown Eyes.”
Under the expert direction of conductor Jay Richards, the choral and dancing ensembles join its orchestra in giving Ragtime an authentic turn-of-the last-century vibe by performing production numbers with flavors reminiscent of period marches, cakewalks, gospel melodies and, of course, ragtime tunes.
Additional evening performances of Ragtime are slated at the Ellen Eccles Theatre on Sept. 16, 18, 21, 22 and 23. A matinee performance is also scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Sept. 23.