28 Jun ASPEN TIMES: ‘Ragtime’ at Theatre Aspen
When your top-billed actor ruptures his Achilles tendon three days before opening night, as they say, the show must go on.
Theatre Aspen faced this dilemma when Michael Andreaus, who plays the pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. in the company’s season-opening production of the musical “Ragtime,” fell during one of the final dress rehearsals. The company has opted to stick with its hobbled lead rather than running an understudy. For the first two weeks of the show’s summer-long run, Andreaus is expected to perform mostly from a folding chair just off stage right, as he did on opening night Tuesday.
“Once you hear him sing,” Theatre Aspen producing director Jed Bernstein promised the sold-out opening night crowd at the Hurst Theatre before the show, “you will not give a crap that he can’t move.”
That’s true, for the most part. Andreaus gives a phenomenal vocal performance in this sweeping tale of America at the turn of the 20th century, playing the pianist radicalized by his experiences with racism. By the time he’s belting out his deeply felt and rousing rendition of the show-closing call for social justice “Make Them Hear You,” no, you won’t give a crap that his foot is in a cast.
In nearly any other staging, a Coalhouse seated and off-stage would be ridiculous. But in the intimate setting of the Hurst, where actors are already performing from the aisles and using nearly every inch of the theater, and where the low stage is nearly at his chair’s level, it’s a manageable situation that can’t sink this soaring, often searing, production.
The peculiar circumstance asks you to suspend just a little more disbelief than usual. It doesn’t matter a bit during songs like “Wheels of a Dream,” as Coalhouse huddles close with his beloved Sarah (Iris Beaumier) and their baby, or his second-act opener “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy,” which don’t call for much mobility. But his inability to get onstage is evident as Andreaus mimes playing piano, for instance, rather than playing the one onstage in an early scene, and when he raises his arms to mime dancing with Beaumier as she glides alone at center-stage during the duet “Sarah Brown Eyes.” The razzle-dazzle dance number “Gettin’ Ready Rag” is rendered confusing with him singing off-stage away from the ensemble that’s supposed to be swirling around him as he dresses. He uses crutches to leave a theater side-door during a crucial late scene when we are meant to see him walk through a door onstage.
But, wow, can Andreaus sing.
His gutty one-legged performance, which earned him a standing ovation on opening night, will be the talk of the town about “Ragtime” these next few weeks. But this ambitious production should also spark conversation about the timely issues it grapples with and the grand scale it brings to the tent theater. The musical follows three intertwining experiences in New York at the dawn of the American century: Coalhouse, Sarah and African-Americans from Harlem, Eastern European immigrants settling on the Lower East Side and the upper crust whites in the suburbs of New Rochelle.
It’s near-encyclopedic vision of the country includes historical figures and fictional ones amid a head-spinning number of characters, played by a stellar cast of 22 backed by an 11-piece orchestra, and encompasses American traditions such as baseball and movies and tabloid scandals alongside traditions like racism and union-busting, police brutality and nativism.
It reminds us that our current struggles are the eternal American struggles.
The Theatre Aspen production opened on the night that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s Muslim-majority countries ban and as the crisis of separated migrant families on the Mexican border continued. So the musical’s narrative about Tateh, a Jewish immigrant clinging to his daughter and struggling to protect and provide for her, couldn’t be more timely.
The ensemble cast boasts several electrifying performances. Danny Rothman, as Tateh, infuses his performance with an appropriately raw and wild-eyed desperation. Beaumier is a revelation as Sarah — witnessing her unearthing complex layers of a conflicted mother’s love in her solo “Your Daddy’s Son” is worth the price of admission alone. And Kimberly Doreen Burns, as the New Rochelle Mother who takes in Sarah and her baby son, nimbly transforms as her character wakes up to the injustices of her time and builds to her show-stopping call for change “Back to Before.”
Theatre Aspen regular Elise Kinnon, in a brassy turn as the nightclub singer Evelyn Nesbit, shows up and steals a few scenes, as well, while the 11-year-old Aspen Country Day student Jared Hurst provides some welcome comic relief as the blabbermouth Little Boy.
Director Mark Martino, who has been helming shows in the Hurst for a decade now, continues to bring a magic touch to this tiny 200-seat theater. His experience serves him especially well in this production, which wows in its spectacular ensemble numbers but tightens the epic scope of “Ragtime” down to a human and deeply personal scale. The senseless brutality, the bigotry, the racial epithets and the violence depicted in “Ragtime” are utterly devastating as they’re rendered here in extreme close-up.
But the elements of love, of hope and of perseverance are all the more affecting, as well.