An orchestra of 36 players. A choir of over 100-singers strong. The best talent Broadway has to offer. And a generation-defining musical by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, and Terrence McNally called Ragtime. On February 18 at Avery Fisher Hall, choir members culled from high schools, colleges, and community groups, shared the stage along with a chorus of Broadway veterans, for the inaugural show of Manhattan Concert Productions' Broadway Series. Combining the raw talents of these amateur groups with professionals gave the Ahrens and Flaherty score a feeling of majesty, especially as backed by the 36-piece New York City Chamber Orchestra, guided under the skilled baton of Sheilah Walker.
The brainchild behind this evening, Manhattan Concert Productions, is an educational organization that provides choirs, bands, and orchestras with the opportunity to perform in one-night-only concerts at famous venues. This performance of Ragtime celebrated both the Tony-winning show's 15th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of the Ahrens and Flaherty partnership.
That still-ongoing partnership has yielded musicals including Once on This Island, Seussical, the film Anastasia, and the recent Rocky: Das Musical, but it's Ragtime, a show that earned them a Tony Award for Best Score, for which they're best known. Inspired by the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime, with a Tony-winning libretto by McNally, follows the intertwined lives of three different families at the turn of the Twentieth Century: an upper class Protestant family from New Rochelle; a immigrant and his daughter, dreaming of a new life in America; and the romance between Coalhouse Walker, Jr. a black musician from Harlem, and Sarah, the mother of his child. The packed house at Lincoln Center was treated to a host of performances that will likely go down in theater lore. (And you weren't in attendance, it's very likely that you'll be haunted by that fact for the rest of your theater-loving life.)
Leading the large company as Coalhouse and Sarah were Tony nominees Norm Lewis and Patina Miller, whose wonderful vocal performances set the standard for the evening. Miller captured all of Sarah's fragility, soulfully singing the haunting "Your Daddy's Son," while Lewis brought down the house not once, but twice, with his renditions of "Wheels of a Dream" and the climactic "Make Them Hear You." Joining Lewis in the category of "brought down the house," was Tony Award winner Lea Salonga as Mother, who received the evening's most deafening cheers for her version of the soaring ballad "Back to Before," (which you can already listen to here, thanks to YouTube.)
For a one-off concert, this Ragtime, directed by Stafford Arima, who received an Olivier Award nomination for his staging of the show's original London production, was a remarkably acted affair, with deep, fiery, and expertly sung performances from supporting players like Manoel Felciano (the immigrant Tateh), Howard McGillin (Father), Tyne Daly (political activist Emma Goldman), Kerry Butler (media sensation Evelyn Nesbit), Phillip Boykin (Booker T. Washington), and Michael Arden, whose passionate work as Younger Brother easily stood out as the evening's MVP. (The to-die-for principal company also included Matt Cavenaugh as Henry Ford, Lilla Crawford as the Little Girl, Jarrod Emick as Willie Conklin, Lewis Grosso as the Little Boy, Dick Latessa as Grandfather, Jose Llana as Harry Houdini, Michael McCormic as J.P. Morgan, and NaTasha Yvette Williams as Sarah's Friend).
At the end of the night, as the audience filed out of the hall, there was distant music, simple and somehow sublime. A rhythm and rhyme; the humming, whistling, and unabashed singing of the score that Ahrens and Flaherty called Ragtime.