(February 5, 2008)

“Ragtime” Shines for a Short Time

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

The all-too-brief "Broadway in Concert" run of "Ragtime" at the White Plains Performing Arts Center over the weekend holds the promise for some exceptional evenings to come.

Executive director Jack Batman has set the bar high in the first concert production offered by the newly imagined theater in the City Center mall in downtown White Plains

While there were a few technical missteps, "Ragtime," burst onto the stage with excellent voices and effective staging. An epic musical about turn-of-the-20th-century New York, "Ragtime" tells three intertwined stories:

There's the New Rochelle family in which Mother (the wondrous Farah Alvin) yearns for more and Father (the appropriately rigid Patrick Porter) craves the predictability of the status quo.

There's Harlem's Coalhouse Walker Jr. (the amazing Jerry Dixon) and Sarah (the fine Rosena M. Hill) who seek a hopeful future for their son, but encounter nothing but tragedy and pain.

And there's Tateh (the affecting David Villella), an immigrant who finds success after hardship.

The book for "Ragtime" is by Terrence McNally ("Love! Valour! Compassion!"), based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel. The music is by Stephen Flaherty, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens - the same team behind "Once on This Island" and "Seussical."

Flaherty and Ahrens were in the crowd at Friday's opening.

Unlike other concert versions - including the well-known "Encores!" at that other City Center, in Manhattan - director Sidney J. Burgoyne's cast memorized the show: No scripts were visible.

For his set, Burgoyne employed two onstage baby grand pianos (played with gusto by musical director James Bassi and Steven Gross and, once, by Dixon as Coalhouse), a raised walkway and three sets of stairs, with images projected onto a large screen to help set the scene.

The only opening-night glitches were technical: The projections proved a bit finicky and some of the body mikes crackled annoyingly. These are easily remedied and failed to hold back an otherwise first-rate production.

Standouts were Alvin as Mother and Dixon as Coalhouse, two characters who seek fulfillment and the promise of a different kind of music, metaphorically and actually.

Alvin is an actress of considerable talent, never out of character.

Her voice was well-suited to her several solos, from the sweet "Goodbye, My Love" in which she bids farewell to her explorer husband to "Back to Before," when she declares her newfound voice will not be silenced again. Her duet with Villella as Tateh, "Our Children," was as unapologetically sentimental as they come.

Alvin's performance was subtle, charming and fully realized. And, because this was a concert version - without sets and with just the hint of costume - it was pure theater: an actress and her craft.

Equally powerful, as the tragic figure Coalhouse, was Jerry Dixon, whose rich baritone and command of the role were impressive. His first encounter with his infant son was a riveting mix of confusion, pride and honesty that was mesmerizing. And the scene where Coalhouse gives the Westchesterites their first taste of ragtime piano was a thing of beauty.

Dixon transformed Coalhouse from a man whose Model T Ford gave him hope ("Wheels of a Dream") to a vengeful seeker of justice ("Coalhouse's Soliloquy") to a doomed figure concerned about the legacy he'll leave his son ("Make Them Hear You"). In all, Dixon was believable and unforgettable.

Producer Batman has hinted that if the audience is there for a series of concert-version performances, he might develop one.

Memo to Batman: Let the concert series begin.

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