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Review: Moonlight’s spectacular ‘Ragtime’ shines with big voices, epic scale

A scene from Moonlight Stage Productions' "Ragtime" at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista.
(Courtesy of Fred Tracey)

The musical is rarely staged because of its size. This production has a 38-member cast and 25-piece orchestra

Over the past 20 years, the musical “Ragtime” has been produced just twice in San Diego County, first at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista in 2002 and then again 14 years later at the Spreckels Theatre.

The reason why “Ragtime"— which earned 13 Tony nominations and four awards in 1998 — is so rarely staged is its epic size and scope. Lavish shows like this are rarely seen onstage in good times, and in post-pandemic times, they’re nonexistent. So it’s a luxurious pleasure to see “Ragtime” in all its historically sweeping glory once again this month at the Moonlight Amphitheatre.

Charl Brown, center, as Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Moonlight Stage Productions' "Ragtime."
(Courtesy of Fred Tracey)

Moonlight Stage Productions’ new “Ragtime” staging boasts a cast of 38 actors, a 25-piece orchestra, an extensive wardrobe of period costumes and wigs, rented scenery and terrific historically inspired projections by Blake McCarty. The show is also sizeable in length, with 33 musical numbers and running time just under three hours, with intermission.

But besides giving audience members a bang for their buck, Moonlight’s “Ragtime” has one of the best large ensemble casts I’ve seen in years, with great casting in virtually every role.

Based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name, “Ragtime” is the story of three New York families whose lives gradually — and sometimes tragically — intersect: the loving but neglected White middle-class housewife, Mother; the poor but industrious Jewish immigrant and single father, Tateh; and the striving ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., who has fathered a child with Sarah, a washerwoman who lives with Mother’s family.

The three actors who lead the cast — Charl Brown as Coalhouse, Bets Malone as Mother and Geno Carr as Tateh — are all excellent in their roles.

Geno Carr as Tateh and Leila Manuel as the Little Girl in Moonlight Stage Productions' "Ragtime."
(Courtesy of Fred Tracey)

Brown’s performance as Coalhouse is Broadway-worthy. The 2013 Tony nominee dances smartly in the upbeat “Getting Ready Rag,” shimmers with hope in the optimistic love duet “The Wheels of a Dream” and then breaks your heart with his grieving character’s defiant call to action, “Make Them Hear You.”

Mother is an ideal role for Malone. The songs show off her vocal control, and she authentically transmits the longing and gentleness of her character.

And as the widowed entrepreneur Tateh, Carr gives the rawest and most emotionally wrenching performance I’ve ever seen him play in San Diego.

Bets Malone as Mother in Moonlight Stage Productions' "Ragtime."
(Courtesy of Rich Soublet II)

Other standouts are golden-voiced and fresh-faced Jake Bradford as Mother’s idealistic Younger Brother; Jason Webb as the distracted and yet relatable Father; Gerilyn Brault as the cynical socialist organizer Emma Goldman; the articulate Daxton Bethoney as the Little Boy; a haunting Brook Henderson as Coalhouse’s lady love, Sarah; and the always-entertaining Ralph Johnson as the wry Grandfather.

Despite the demands of the show, director-choreographer John Vaughan keeps the show moving engagingly and swiftly with several lively dance pieces, funny comic numbers and full-cast scenes. Music director-conductor Elan McMahan makes a welcome return to the Moonlight pit to oversee the challenging score.

Moonlight’s “Ragtime” isn’t a light evening of entertainment. It’s more like a richly detailed novel that deserves the full attention of your eyes and ears.

‘Ragtime’

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Through Sept. 3. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Moonlight Amphitheatre, Brengle Terrace Park, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista

Tickets: $17-$61

Phone: (760) 724-2110

Online: moonlightstage.com


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