Manhattan Concert Productions gave New Yorkers a rare treat on Feb. 18, with an all-star concert production of the Tony Award-winning 1998 musical Ragtime, which boasted an orchestra of over 30 and a chorus of 150 singers at Avery Fisher Hall.
The energy within the hall was palpable on both sides of the footlights for the sold-out concert that featured such Broadway stars as Lea Salonga, Patina Miller, Norm Lewis, Tyne Daly, Kerry Butler, Howard McGillin, Michael Arden and Manoel Felciano, who took on the archetypal characters and historical figures whose worlds collide and chisel a new America in the musical inspired by E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel.
The evening's starry line-up aside, it was clear that the true star audiences came to see was the musical itself. Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, and the Tony-winning songwriting team of lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty crafted one of the finest musicals to ever capture the American experience.
What makes the musical a challenge to stage in a conventional theatre format — a somewhat detached narrative that makes clever use of third person point of view — is also what makes Ragtime successful in a concert presentation. In the best possible way, Ragtime feels like an oratorio documenting the struggle of American social progress. Director Stafford Arima, who earned an Olivier Award nomination for staging the London premiere of Ragtime, helmed the special one-night-only event that welcomed musicians and choral singers from across the country.
Lewis Grosso, the young actor who originated the role of Les in the Broadway production of Newsies, took on the role of The Little Boy — starting the evening with Doctorow's words: "In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed for some years thereafter that all the family's days would be warm and fair..."
What followed was an evening with numerous high points and goose-bump-inducing moments. The opening title song alone, which sounds like a great machine starting up as it enters its final bars, garnered shouts of praise from the crowd.
Tony Award winner Lea Salonga made her Broadway debut in the 1991 musical Miss Saigon and returned to the New York stage in a rare appearance as Mother, providing the stand-out performance of the evening. Salonga was in pristine voice, filling the auditorium during the first trio "Goodbye, My Love/Journey On," and she received the biggest ovation of the night for her show-stopping 11-o'clock number "Back to Before." Her voice and committed performance (after less than two weeks of rehearsal) can only leave us hoping that Ahrens and Flaherty will consider writing a musical for the talented actress who has been absent from the Broadway stage for too long.
The evening's delights continued with Manoel Felciano as the immigrant Tateh, offering a tender rendition of "Gliding" and a joyously embodied performance of the tongue-twister "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc." Annie star Lilla Crawford also gave an emotional performance as The Little Girl.
Tony and Olivier Award nominee Patina Miller, who had the unenviable task of taking on the role of Sarah (originally written for Tony winner Audra McDonald), carved a path of her own in the role of the bewildered young mother. Possessing a thrilling voice, Miller navigated the challenging solo "Your Daddy's Son" and the duet "Wheels of a Dream" with co-star Norm Lewis to great acclaim from the audience. Tony nominee Lewis as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., brought his rich bari-tenor to such songs as "Gettin' Ready Rag" and "Make Them Hear You."
Other compelling performances from the evening were Michael Arden's passionate turn as Mother's Younger Brother; Tony nominee Howard McGillin as the refined and occasionally frosty Father (a delight during "New Music"); Phillip Boykin's richly-sung Booker T. Washington; Kerry Butler as a perfectly vapid Evelyn Nesbit; and NaTasha Yvette Williams' rousing and soulful solo as Sarah's Friend during the first act finale, "Til We Reach That Day."
Sheilah Walker conducted the orchestra and chorus. If there were any detractions from the night, it was that the intricate and beautifully-voiced orchestrations by William David Brohn and vocal arrangements by Flaherty were occasionally lost and overpowered by the number of individuals (both musicians and chorus) performing on stage.
Arima also delivered several inspired directorial touches, including a wonderful moment for the chorus during "What a Game" as they craned to reach for a fly ball. Beowulf Boritt provided the suggestive scenery in the form of black and white period photographs, which were projected above the performers — lending not only a sense of place to the proceedings, but giving the performance additional historic weight.