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Review: YMTC's "Ragtime" Transcends Both Stage and Expectations

The production is heart wrenching and joyous, with a degree of power audiences may not be expecting from its youth-only cast.

"Ragtime," the latest production from Berkeley's Youth Musical Theater Company (YMTC), is performed on a small stage, with very few props and no scene changes — and yet, the show is epic.

The audience is stunned from the first belting note, through the pitch-perfect harmonies. By the finale, they're on their feet, most smiling contentedly, and others with tear-stained cheeks. The applause rattles the Julia Morgan Theater, and even some of the more bashful cast members.

The pièce de résistance? All the actors and actresses in the production are between the ages of 10 and 21.

Yes, even Luna Lewis, a 10th grader at Berkeley High School who plays leading lady "Sarah" with an exceptional maturity of emotion. Lewis can also carry a beautiful melody.

Misha Riley, a 12th grader at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, is so endearing in his role at the immigrant "Tateh" that he becomes the most empathetic character. Through his deep and earnest performance, with an undercurrent of humor, Riley inspires the audience to relive their own immigrant tales of chasing the American Dream and finding disillusionment and struggle along the way.

Sarah's love interest and the show's leading man, "Colehouse Walker Jr.," is played by 21-year-old Dawon Davis, an Oakland native and former foster youth who makes the stage his home. His commanding presence and rich voice, along with the breadth of his acting abilities, make Davis a must-see performer.

But it is Shelby Stewart, a 12th grade student at Head-Royce school in Oakland, who first captures the audience's attention with her acoustic talents and the sincerity of her performance. Stewart's voice is perfectly powerful, and a sweet, subtle emotion dances on her face in every scene.

"Ragtime," based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel and adapted for stage by playright Terrence McNally, follows the lives of three families in turn-of-the-century America as they struggle to grasp, or hold onto, their American Dream. Director Jennifer Boesing brings the show to life on the Julia Morgan Theater stage, creating space and atmosphere with a dynamic production that transcends the stage.

The show begins with a series of vignettes, capturing the pomp and power of the early 1900s. Soon, a story emerges as the lives of the characters begin to intertwine, forcing them to face the contractions of their time. Wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair must face-off to overcome injustice and transform tragedy to triumph.

As a musical, "Ragtime" offers soulful melodies and feet-tapping tunes, evoking a range of emotions as the audience commiserates and celebrates with the characters on stage. The foundation of the show's musical vibrancy sits below stage, as a live 26-piece orchestra fills the theater with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' award-winning music. 

"Ragtime" first opened on a Toronto stage in 1996 and went on to win the 1998 Tony Award for Best Score, Best Book and Best Orchestration. The show was revived on Broadway in 2009.

Performances of "Ragtime" continue this week from Thursday, Feb. 16 through Sunday, Feb. 18, with a 7:30 p.m. showtime. Buy tickets online here.

The performance on Thursday, Feb. 16 is a special night for teachers and teenagers, with $10 tickets available to youth under the age of 22 (use the discount code "Facebook" when purchasing tickets online), and a post-show talk-back session with directors and cast members. Group rates are available for teachers who wish to bring their classes to see "Ragtime." Contact YMTC here for more information.

Have you seen YMTC's "Ragtime"? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

sam l February 16, 2012 at 07:28 PM
I saw this show on Broadway a few years ago and this production, I think, is even better. It's not just good for YOUTH theater. It's simply great theater. do yourself a favor and grab a ticket before they sell out.
Katy Henry February 17, 2012 at 12:59 AM
This review is great, it sums up the essence of the show with such powerful words that it deserves! The show was amazing and had me in tears. I am so excited about seeing the next one. Pure talent.
Nicola Miller February 17, 2012 at 02:06 AM
This review sums up the show fantastically. It was a great performance by each and every cast member. I am not normally a huge fan of musicals but this one had me gripped the whole way through. Such talented young actors, I would recommend this show to everyone.
James Williams February 17, 2012 at 06:51 PM
Agree. The show is a masterpiece! Director Jennifer Boesing's ability to bring artists of that age to life in such a deep and truthful way is quite amazing. The voices, costumes, music (26 piece orchestra apparently!), and the emotion make it an absolutely wonderful theatrical experience. Honestly, it compares with the best of Broadway and professional theater I've ever seen. A must see.
Alice L. February 18, 2012 at 05:54 PM
I was extremely fortunate to be able to see this amazing show twice--had to come back after the first performance, it was so powerfully moving and well done. I have lived in the By Area about 6 years now and have been to quite a few adult theater performances. None of those brought me tears and wonder as often as this production of Ragtime. Congratulations to these talented young people. Mazeltov! And a huge shout out to the director, choreographer and costumer.

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