The Arts

Ragtime

Ragtime featured image

Reviewed by Marc Glassman

Ragtime
Jackie Maxwell, director
Terrence McNally book; Stephen Flaherty, music & Lynn Ahrens, lyrics based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
Paul Sportelli, musical direction
Valerie Moore, choreography
Sue LePage, sets and costumes
Beth Kates & Ben Chaisson, projections
Alan Brodie, lighting
Starring: Thom Allison (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), Patty Jamieson (Mother), Jay Turvey (Tateh), Alana Hibbert (Sarah), Benedict Campbell (Father), Aadin Church (Booker T. Washington), Kate Hennig (Emma Goldman), Julie Martell (Evelyn Nesbit), Evan Alexander Smith (Younger Brother), Kelly Wong (Houdini), Morgan Hilliker/Eden Kennedy (Little Girl), Jaden Carmichael/Aidan Tye (Edgar)

 

The Shaw Festival’s revival of the Tony Award winning hit Ragtime is a triumph—a show stopping musical that is fueled by indignation against racism and the excesses of capitalism. Not a typical subject for a musical, of course, but Jackie Maxwell’s production makes the contradictory impulses behind the work come off spectacularly well. Ragtime is an epic piece of theatre, which deliberately recreates the swagger, cruelty and optimism of America during the early part of the 2oth century. Mixing Broadway compositional conventions with the melodies and rhythms of ragtime, the catchy African-American musical form that foreshadowed jazz while still maintaining classical roots, this is a musical that connects contemporary audiences with the U.S.’s beautiful and devastating past.

Terrence McNally’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s award-winning novel is intelligently judged; he creates drama out of a wonderfully chaotic book that mixed a plethora of historical characters with three American families, one African-American, one Jewish and one WASPy and wealthy. On a set filled with angular metallic constructions that evoke from scene to scene a train station, a bridge, a harbour with ships departing, and eventually, an oversized American home, a vast group of characters are introduced. There’s Evelyn Nesbitt, the legendary girl in the velvet swing, whose beauty caused her jealous husband Harry Thaw to kill her lover, the architect Stanford White. There’s the revolutionary Emma Goldman and the plutocrat J.P. Morgan and somehow tying them together, the magician Harry Houdini.

Gradually, the three families make their appearances: the Russian Jewish immigrant and dreamer Tateh and his daughter; the star-crossed African-American lovers Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah and the upper-class family led by Father, a businessman and explorer and the idealistic Mother, accompanied by their son, Edgar and Mother’s feckless Younger Brother. As the first Act reaches its resolution, the ragtime piano-playing Coalhouse has his beautiful Model-T Ford car trashed by racists and, far worse, loses his love, Sarah, to overly zealous Secret Service Men, who kill her, mistakenly thinking that she is trying to assassinate the Vice-President.

In the Second Act, the frenetic pace is slowed down as Coalhouse’s drama is played out. Now a revolutionary and an assassin, he and Younger Brother decide to “blow up” society. Meanwhile, Mother and Edgar share dreams with Tateh and his daughter—after the immigrant Jew becomes a filmmaker. Father, too, is trying to deal with the unfolding nature of the 20th century, which is proving to be far more violent than the 19th.

McNally’s book sets the scenes for the music and lyrics of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Here is the one drawback of Ragtime as a piece of musical theatre: the songs, though good, don’t rise to the level of a Sondheim or a Gershwin. However, while the score could be stronger, the acting, stagecraft, lighting, sound design and film projections are terrific.

Ragtime is a musical with a true point-of-view, humanizing the Coalhouse Walkers and Younger Brothers of the world while endorsing the forward thinking liberalism of Mother and Tateh. It’s a must-see for all theatregoers worth their salt this summer.

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