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MusicalFare's 'Ragtime' is in fine voice

It will never be too soon to revive “Ragtime.”

It’s a magnificent piece of theater, with a glorious score that still sounds transcendent more than 20 years after its debut. With a pageant of characters, and their wealth of perspectives on American life, the show’s hope for a more diverse future is as wide as the ocean. Yes, it is that epic.

An impressive new production at MusicalFare gives it a fresh breath of poignancy. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel and set in New York City at the turn of the century, it may feel like a period piece but its themes are exponentially timeless.

We meet three groups: WASPS in New Rochelle, African-Americans in Harlem and Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side. In the city’s tight quarters, they dance around each other at first, sticking to their own beats. But soon enough they become each other’s syncopation. It is a new American sound, a steady and slightly off-beat rhythm. It feels like the future. Of course, they come to realize how fragile the reality of that dream is.

Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens use this ragtime metaphor throughout the show with range and inventiveness. This is their masterpiece, and widely considered one of the best scores in the musical theater canon. Terrence McNally’s book accommodates a large swath of Doctorow’s characters, some historical and some concocted – no small feat.

The strong voices of the MusicalFare cast of "Ragtime" make the production well worth seeing - and hearing. (Photo by Michael Walline)

Director Randy Kramer and choreographer Michael Walline wrangle this big machine with palpable heart, taking all the right moments to stop and reflect before powering up again. Their staging maintains a steady pace for three dense hours. This is a pared down version of the show even with 18 performers; the original had about double.

Vocally, the cast fills the room with robust sound. They are all beautiful, with exceptional performances from Chrissy Vogric-Hunnel as the evolving Mother, Dominique Kempf as the resilient Sarah, Kyle Baran as the determined Tateh, and Stevie Jackson as the fame-hungry Evelyn Nesbit. MusicalFare regular Charmagne Chi gives a beautifully measured performance as anarchist Emma Goldman, as does Ricky Needham as Younger Brother. Alexandria Watt’s vocals shatter glass.

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But Lorenzo Shawn Parnell is a lightweight in the central role of Coalhouse Walker, whose restraint, aspiration and angst encapsulates all of the stories energies. This role requires an enormous strength and determination that are only faintly felt here. His voice is lovely, but rarely constructive.

The production’s aesthetics are minimal but evocative. Chris Cavanagh’s lights wash his industrial sets in dreamy swirls and suggestive shadows. Grayscale projections set the scene with postcard-like nostalgia. (His sound effects are canned, on the contrary.) Kari Drozd’s costumes and Susan Drozd’s hair, wig and makeup give rich life to these paper dolls. This is a winning collaboration on almost all fronts.

However the decision to distill the licensed orchestrations to two pianos and percussion is a major and curious letdown. While piano fits the ragtime genre perfectly, it ironically is not enough to satisfy the full breadth of the “Ragtime” musical’s voice. So much is missed in absence of strings, brass, woodwinds and banjo.

The way Mother’s longing swells with violin when she bids her explorer husband farewell; the way Coalhouse struts himself ready to meet his beloved Sarah, brass a-blazing. It feels naked and imbalanced, and not merely conceptual – the wrong kind of syncopation.

Modifications are understandable given the show’s scope. They still need to be smart. At the end of the day, “Ragtime” is the quintessential American musical, because, like America, it is too big an idea to ever fully realize yet is always worth chasing.

THEATER REVIEW

“Ragtime”

3 stars (out of four)

Presented by MusicalFare Theatre through March 17 at Daemen College, 4380 Main St. Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $45 (musicalfare.com, 839-8540).

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