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A CurtainUp Review

Max Morath: Ragtime and Again

Max Morath
Max Morath (Photo: Diane Fay Skomars )
A question frequently posed to Max Morath is "Should ragtime be played fast of slow?" Morath's answer: "Yes." And that's exactly what he does in Ragtime and Again, the new combined concert and lecture championing that most American and popular genre of music known as ragtime playing at the York Theater through March 4th.

Whether fast or slow, the dapper Morath is a nimble-fingered, vivid interpreter of the rags of like Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin -- most written when these musicians were still in their teens and ragtime which Morath defines as "syncopation." burst into full bloom. As part of his ambassadorial mission to honor the long reach of the genre, Morath also aptly demonstrates how you can "rag up" even a folk song like "Swanee River" and entertainingly merges two of the most famous rags, Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag."

The durable performer and raconteur has done enough shows of this type to be as smooth at the patter and jokes as he is as a pianist. If it all is just a bit too smoothly rehearsed and the jokes are apt to fall flat, the musical segments and much of the ragtime lore offer ample rewards for ragtime enthusiasts as well as those less familiar with ragtime's history and key practitioners.

Drawing on his truly prodigious knowledge of American musical history, Mr. Morath tells us about such lesser known "rag kids" as Carrie Jacobs Bond, the young African-American woman who, when she could not get her songs published, started her own company. Interesting and inspiring as this is, ending act one with a sing-along of her most famous song, "I Love You Truly ", is a major misstep which director Robert Marks should have controlled. There are other self-indulgences that Marks would have done well to insist on eliminating: the too many detours into old age related jokes and observations and a hammy recitation of "The Ballad of Salvation Bill " by the performer's favorite poet Robert W. Service. Not only is this completely out of sync with everything else but its staging, complete with a light-projected window on the wall at the side of the stage, seems to call attention to the basically non-staged main event. Knowing the budget constraints of the worthy York, you accept the bare bones staging with its blow-ups of black and white photos of the musicians who are part of the script. Yet, along comes this unnecessary stage business and you find yourself wishing that some of those photos could have been animated with projections (as Morath's ragtime programs PBS surely were).

The elimination of the above self-indulgences would help to trim the show by the half hour it should lose. Still, Morath who makes a good case for keeping the word "dapper" an active adjective, is a jovial mix of professor and entertainer who connects well with the audience. When he sits down at the Baldwin grand to play "I Love a Piano", it seems as if Irving Berlin wrote that rag for him. He clearly does love the piano enough to make you love him playing it.


Written by Written by Max Morath
Directed by Robert Marks
Set Design: James Morgan
Costume Design:
Lighting Design: Mary Jo Dondlinger
Running time: 2 hours plus a 15-minute intermission
he York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's in Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street) SmartTix 212-868-4444
2/02/04 to 3/14/04; opening 2/08/04.
Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, Sunday evenings at 7:30pm, with matinees on Wednesdays, Saturday and Sundays at 2:30pm.
No performances on Wednesday or Thursday evenings.
Tickets are $50; $20 student tickets available on the day of the performance.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 7th press performance

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