LOGAN — Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998 with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and a book by Terrence McNally. Because it was one of the first shows I saw on the New York stage (and not often performed in Utah), I jumped at the chance to experience a new for me company of Musical Theatre West in Logan and see their production of this beautiful show that still holds the same relevance that I felt 25 years ago.
Directed by Jed Broberg, Musical Theatre West’s production of Ragtime is housed in the Ellen Eccles theatre on Main Street in downtown Logan. It is a beautiful, classic theatre facility, and when I walked in, I was thrilled to discover the sound of a live orchestra warming up. I even saw the arms of orchestra conductor Jay Richards reaching up and stretching in preparation for the workout of conducting a score of this magnitude. While productions of Ragtime can succeed with prerecorded music, the best decision that was made in this production was to have live musicians in the pit. In the Ellen Eccles Theatre, all of the music in this majestic score sounded full, rounded, and completely filling the facility with rich, endearing tones. The opening musical prologue is a tour de force of musical enrichment, and the level of vocals by the whole ensemble combined with the richness of the live instruments reminded me of why this show entered into my top ten favorite musicals in 1998 and has never left.
Conlon Bonner not only excelled in so many ways in his portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr. In the song “Getting Ready Rag,” Bonner shows off his Bonner’s amazing vocal skills as well as the impressive choreography by Stephanie White. This song is where the period music of the era truly is showcased by the orchestra, and I enjoyed how well the movement of the ensemble kept with the theme. Bonner, with Brittany Andam as Sarah, worked like magic on stage together. From the song “New Music” to the iconic “Wheels of a Dream,” the two built hope for their characters and conveyed to the audience of what America could and should be. Their performances emphasized the beauty and tragedy of these characters and made their traumatic turn at the end of the first act even more tragic. Bonner continued throughout the second act to shine, right up to the climatic “Make them Hear You,” which is a golden anthem that matched his golden voice.
It is a widespread belief that certain plays are not mounted in Utah because of a lack of diverse talent in the casting pool. Time and time again, local theatre companies have proven that this idea is false and misguided. The richness and talent of the cast of Music Theatre West’s Ragtime is one impressive case in point. I was also pleased to see within the program that Bonner was listed as the diversity coordinator, an important job for a show like this (and a position that most productions would benefit from). I could see many elements within the show that had paid strict detail to diversity and inclusion, such as the sensitivity announcement in the beginning, the costuming and hairstyling, choreography, and much more.
Speaking of costuming, there was a lot to appreciate in this show. The storyline follows the beginning of the 1900s and three specific groups of people: white upper class, Black Americans, and recent immigrants. The attention to detail in each of these groups by costume designer Debi King was impressive. One detail in particular was impactful: The character of Mother (played magnificently by Celeste Baillio) had a significant costume and hairstyle change in the second act, which mirrored the character’s growth in personality and mindset as the play progressed. This flowed so well into her 11 o’clock number “Back to Before” that it added a breathtaking impact to that song.
It is hard to write a completely spoiler-free review of Ragtime, but I can say that the most important part of the show, which is the last musical number of the first act. When Nneka Barcelona, playing Sarah’s friend, began the solo of the song “Till We Reach That Day,” I was already holding back tears. But I was completely unprepared for the staging, lighting, and other choices the company had made to make that number so impactful and moving. This company made me remember seeing the scene in New York 25 years ago and hearing the words, “It will happen again and again and again.” Those lyrics were prophetic, and since then there have been thoughtless deaths arising from unfound racism and hate. I remember clearly thinking in 1998 that it was heartbreaking that society had not reached a point where people had learned that lesson and that maybe if more people see Ragtime, we can “reach that day.” Here we are 25 years later, and unfortunately, the need for the message of Ragtime has not lessened. I commend the whole crew at Musical Theatre West for how they were able to take a moment of history and bring it right into the present day in this powerful and soaring production of Ragtime.