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A CurtainUp Review
Ragtime: The Musical
By Elyse Sommer
As the Twentieth Century draws to its close, Ragtime provides theater audiences with a rich musical assemblage of the American experience at its beginning. It is a gorgeous spectacle that nevertheless manages a look of simplicity. It packs enough entertainment value and hews closely enough to E.L. Doctorow's novel to be the sort of show that one hopes will reach audiences from the same diverse social strata as its characters.
Like its source, it focuses on three families whose intersecting lives are influenced by the Ragtime era's social challenges and challengers. As the story is a convergence of real and historic figures, so the musical is a convergence of the talents of a tightly meshed creative team. To realize their musical and visual vision, they've edited and rearranged much of Doctorow's text. The result is a work that, in spite of some losses, is an organic outgrowth of the book and faithful to its multiple themes. Chief of these to American society's coming to terms with the new century's beckoning potential for both good and bad and the spirit driving its citizens to explore their broadened physical and personal horizons.
The show gets off to a truly rousing start with a full-bodied prologue that introduces all the human and musical elements of the changing American landscape. It is exquisitely directed (by Frank Galati) and elegantly choreographed (by Graciela Daniele). If one could buy special discount, standing room tickets for just one drop-dead scene, I would go back to see this first half hour several more times. Besides establishing the director and choreographer's style, the prologue also foreshadows the continuing pleasures of Santo Loquasto's ravishing costumes; Eugene Lee's efficient and increasingly eyepopping sets; and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's evocative and at times amazingly inventive lighting.
To set things in motion one of the members of the three key Ragtime families, The Little Boy (Alex Strange) rushes on stage as the giant stereoopticon suspended from the stage ceiling is raised. The boy picks up a life-sized version of the disappearing prop and it is through its lens that we are introduced to his family and their neighbors clad in starched white linen and living in the upper-middle class WASP splendor of New Rochelle, in 1902. As Lynn Ahren's lyrics describe this untroubled existence in which "there were no Negroes" just such a group moves forward and joins this still unmelted melting pot. No sooner do we hear "there were no immigrants" than composer Stephen Flaherty's music begins to pulse with the sound that identifies the Eastern European immigrants who join in the tentative dance of assimilation
To round out this dynamic tableau, Director Galati also brings on the actors playing Harry Houdini (Jim Corti), Evelyn Nesbitt (Lynnette Perry), Stanford White (Kevin Bogue), Harry K. Thaw (Colton Green), J.P. Morgan (Mike O'Carroll), Henry Ford (Larry Daggett) Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis) and Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye). As they take their place on the steps at the periphery of Stage right and left (appropriate to their peripheral influences on the fictional characters' destinies), you have more than 50 people singing to the show's leitmotiv music.
It's hard to top an opening like this that pulls out all the stops, and there are some wrong notes which I'll save for a closing quibbles section. On the whole Ragtime continues on the high road of excellence for most of its three hours. This is particularly true for the choreography, lighting and set design. To mention just a few of the more memorable images: a silhouetted dance number that evolves from Tateh's (Peter Friedman) pushcart of silhouette drawings to a projected backdrop of the Lower East Side. . .the dance in the Harlem jazz club that seagues into a Ford assembly line, the last cleverly depicted through the movement of the dancers rather than any machinery. . . the railroad tracks created from ingenious lighting . . .the lovely George Bellow like intermission curtain and all the other vivid backdrops.
The device of moving the action forward through narration by the character at the center of the action described works very well. It dramatically translates E. L. Doctorow's method of omitting all quotation marks so that many people reading his book thought it had no dialogue. On the same note, because Brian Stokes Mitchell has collected so many raves since he began playing Coalhouse Walker in Toronto, some people think that Ragtime is primarily about the courtship of Coalhouse and Sarah and his quest for justice when some racist fireman damage his prized Model T Ford and Sarah is tragically killed. While the raves are well deserved -- he invests the part with enormous magnetism and has a voice that melts in your ear -- Coalhouse is just one colorful scrap of humanity caught up in the rhythm of the period identified by the new music known as Ragtime. He and Sarah are the links that sets in motion the larger story of the human connection as exemplified by the joining of his son's fate with the nameless New Rochelle family and the immigrant pushcart artist Tateh and his daughter.
As good as Brian Stokes Mitchell is, he is, like his character, part of the larger picture -- a standout in a cast of standout performances. To name just a few:
Audra McDonald as Sarah and Marin Mazzie as Mother are fine actresses with powerful voices. Sarah's duet with Coalhouse, "Wheels of a Dream," is one of the evening's showstoppers. Less showy, but to me more outstanding, is Mother and Tateh's duet "Nothing Like the City" during their first meeting. It is an understated gem. Stephen Stucliffe also gives a strong performance as Mother's idealistic Younger Brother (It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with the darker sexually complicated Brother of the novel).
While many of the historical figures have been downsized to bit parts, Lynette Perry, Judy Kaye and Jim Conti as Evelyn Nesbitt, Emma Goldman and Houdini make the most of what's left to them. This is especially true of the Houdini character who, as much as the ragtime thythms, embodies the metaphor of change. "Harry Houdini, Master Escape Artist" which opens Act 2 entertainingly makes the connection between the ultimate escape artist and the ordinary masses who stormed the gates of Ellis Island for a better life. Like them he was an immigrant and so if he could free himself from poverty, so could they.
As already stated, Ragtime has its shortcomings. Here then, are the quibbles:
First and foremost, there's a tendency to go overboard on soul-rending hymns of inspiration, desperation and uplift that could have benefitted from a tighter grip on the emotion arousing reins. The "Make Them Hear You" and "Ragtime/Wheel of a Dream" numbers that turn the tragic conclusion of the Coalhouse story into yet another rousingly upbeat hymn seem slightly manipulative. A feeling exacerbated by the exit sales pitch from the uniform-clad Ford Center employees. It also remains to be seen whether African-American audiences will respond positively to these tug-at-the-heart themes or write them off as a sap to "white man's guilt."
With the exception of the rag style compositions, all the musical numbers are not created equal. Their attempt to capture many American styles is often successful and always melodious but rarely hum-and-remember.
The changes that time's forward march and happenstance bring into the three pivotal families' lives happen before our eyes, except for the immigrant Tateh (Peter Friedman). This is a minor quibble since it has its up side in that Tateh's mostly off-stage switch from peasant to "Count" adds a humorous touch of mystery to his persona. It also makes his character less stereotypically East European immigrant and turns his relationship with Mother into a believable secondary romance.
Some of the condensation and shifting of scenes is very sensible in terms of the book's musicalization. The terrific scene when Coalhouse plays on the piano in the New Rochelle Parlor and his relationship with the family and Sarah comes to a climax is an outstanding illustration of the creative team's adaptive skills. It also makes one wonder, however, why similar editorial judgment was not exercised about the charming but literally out of left field baseball scene. Little Boy's clairvoyance is even more gratuitous . As the baseball scene smacks of pushing every possible American icon button, the editorial changes in the character of Evelyn Nesbitt and her relationship with Mother's Younger Brother and Emma Goldman makes one wonder whether the try-out focus groups demanded squeaky clean family fare. Before I close, a word about the inevitable comparison to Lion King since these across-the-street neighbors are bound to be the chief contenders during the annual Tony shootout.
The good news is that both shows stand on very solid ground in terms of not making theater goers feel they've spent incredibly much for underwhelmingly little entertainment and artistic value. Both mark a giant step forward towards a happy marriage between creative and corporate interests. Both were accompanied by enormous hype that has happily not fizzled into hot air.
Except for the fact that both shows also have breathtakingly beautiful opening numbers, they really shouldn't be compared in terms of which is better. Lion King takes musical theater to a groundbreaking level of creative expression. It owes much of its uniqueness to the remarkable gifts of one artist, Julie Taymor. It's source is a children's book and its gift is that it makes its grownup audiences feel like children again. Ragtime, on the other hand, is a beautifully executed traditional musical. It is noteworthy less as the triumph of a single person than at demonstrating the power of a synergistic team. It is an adult musical based on an adult novel that happens to be suitable for children (10 and up).
For details about the new Ford Center check out our (Not So) Sneak Peek At the Ford Center For the Performing Arts. The end of that feature includes links to several Ragtime web sites, information about Ragtime, the Book which we recommend reading or re-reading either before or after the show--as well as John Dos Passos' trilogy U.S.A. which was the first novel to combine fictional and historic figures into a panorama of American life. It is also about the first quarter of this century and a wonderful read.