All in the Timing 

Ragtime remounted; Hitchcock recreated.

I loved Playhouse on the Square's 2003 production of Ragtime, and I wasn't the only one. The epic musicalization of E.L. Doctorow's historical novel swept the Ostrander Awards that year, taking home Ossies for best musical, leading actor, leading actress, and director. The current revival, which reunites director Dave Landis with choreographer Jay Rapp and some key players from the original cast, is strong, the songs are beautifully sung, and the production may have a similar effect on this year's Ostrander judges. But this latest installment is never as moving as the original. Mostly, I blame Karl Rove.

Musically speaking, ragtime is a syncopated march that was born in the brothels and music halls of New Orleans. It's a perfect metaphor for that moment in the early 20th century when women, blacks, Irish, Italians, and Eastern European immigrants began to rock America's Anglo-male hegemony. Doctorow's colorful story, a tension-filled dance between these various groups, begins when a WASPy matriarch from the New York suburbs (Carla McDonald) finds an African-American baby half-buried in her garden. It also tells the story of Tateh (Michael Detroit), a poor Jewish immigrant who suffers for his art but eventually becomes a successful filmmaker, and Coalhouse Walker (Jarrad Baker), an educated black man and rising musical star who is denied justice repeatedly and becomes radicalized.

What Landis' thoughtfully staged revival can't recreate or improve on (thank goodness) is the political climate of 2003. America was still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and sharply divided. The 2004 presidential campaign had gotten off to an early start and the bellicose nationalism embraced by supporters of President George W. Bush teetered on the edge of becoming full-fledged flag-waving idolatry. When Landis originally juxtaposed projections of waving flags with images of violence and mayhem, it was especially meaningful in a divided culture about to go toe-to-toe over whether or not a person's patriotism could be determined by his or her choice of lapel pin.

I left this latest Ragtime impressed by many things, particularly the austere metal profile of Jimmy Humphries' puzzle box set, Renee Kemper's top-notch musical direction, and Baker's dangerous, deeply sympathetic take on Coalhouse Walker. If the show, which says so much about the evolution of our national character, seemed less exciting the second time around, it's only because the national conversation has become ever so slightly more complex. And I'm not going to complain about that.

Through May 29th

You know that old saying about how comedy's all in the timing? Well, it's true. And when I saw Circuit Playhouse's highly theatrical take on The 39 Steps — a stylized romp through all things Hitchcockian — the timing was way off and the tired-seeming actors were mugging for all they were worth. I'm going to chalk that up to a condition I like to call Sunday matinee-itis and assume that what I saw that afternoon was an exception, not the rule, because even on a bad day the cast was still impressive, and if things had only clicked, Kevin Shaw's inventive staging really could have been much funnier.

This giddy homage to classic suspense is built on two primary conceits: Four actors (with help from some shadow puppets) play 150-plus characters, and events from various Hitchcock films that are impossible to recreate onstage — being chased by airplanes for example — are fully recreated onstage. At the heart of all the chaos is Michael Gravois, an actor known for his masterful shape-shifting in plays like Stones in His Pockets, I Am My Own Wife, and A Tuna Christmas. In this rare case, however, Gravois plays only one character and leaves all the heavy lifting to Jenny Lynn Christoffersen, Ryan Kathman, and Matt Reed.

The 39 Steps is a fine example of what's possible when performers throw out all the old rules about "suspending disbelief" and simply ask audiences to engage their imagination and play along. And what's possible then is everything.

Through June 5th

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