An American Dream : Doctorow’s rich novel becomes great theater in its U.S. debut. Its grand and brutal themes of modern life in this country are both timely and timeless.
So rich and so heart-rending you are likely to spend all three hours of its duration fighting back tears, “Ragtime” is great theater. It is also the rare musical big enough to address millennial concerns about where we come from and who we would like to be.
In 1975, E.L. Doctorow’s novel “Ragtime” was the book everyone was reading. Written in an understated and confident voice, it tells a tale of the beginning of this century that takes history as fiction’s birthright and grapples with the shared dreams and nightmares that went on to define modern American life.
Brand-name historical figures like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit and Booker T. Washington intermingle episodically with fictional lives: a poor Jewish immigrant, an African American musician and a complacent upper-crust white family from New Rochelle.
“Ragtime” shows the torturous nature of social change, particularly for those destined to be personally caught up in it. But largely it is a story of how we are all inexorably interconnected, an idea that we as a country have ignored at our peril and one that continues to promise us our salvation.
As it turns out, “Ragtime” was made to be retold in song. Starting with an opening number as rousing as any in musical theater, the show, which had its U.S. premiere Sunday night at the Shubert Theatre, is a pageant of American stories that spill over into one another.
The first group to take the stage is the white gentry of New Rochelle, circa 1902. Wearing cool, starched linen, they define their pristine lives as “ladies with parasols / fellas with tennis balls,” and they recall that, for them, “there were no Negros” and “there were no immigrants” even as the stage is invaded by a mass of African Americans and a block of gray-toned Eastern European immigrants off the boat at Ellis Island. The shifts and distinctions in lighting (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer), in costumes (Santo Loquasto) and in the superb orchestrations by William David Brohn let us hear, feel and see their differences and their similarities.
In the powerful and muscular staging by choreographer Graciela Daniele and director Frank Galati, these three masses of humanity are pulled together by the irresistible force of Stephen Flaherty’s music, which is filled with hope and dread and joy.
The opening number enfolds ragtime music into show music and identifies it as the force that will send “the century spinning,” not to mention the hearts and minds of the theater audience.
In “Ragtime,” people come together through both accident and historical necessity, and the novel weaves episodic stories into an organic whole. The adaptation, by Terrence McNally, and the score, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, falters in telling only one of the three stories.
The tale of the Jewish immigrant Tateh (John Rubinstein) and his daughter (Danielle Wiener) remains stubbornly generic, despite an impassioned performance by Rubinstein. Tateh’s two solos seem insubstantial compared to the rest of the score, and he becomes fully alive only when he links up to sing with Mother, the matriarch of the New Rochelle family, played valiantly but with a shade too much effort by Marcia Mitzman Gaven.
Mother is a moral exemplar; every human instinct she has is the right one. Father (John Dossett) is always out of step with change despite his good intentions. When he sails off toward the North Pole with Adm. Peary, his wife, stuck at home, is the one who undergoes the great human adventure. She finds a black baby, alive and buried in her garden, and takes in the child and his wretched mother, Sarah (LaChanze).
There, in Mother’s gleaming parlor, a courtship begins that rivets the household. The child’s repentant father, a former womanizing musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell), visits each Sunday in his brand-new Model-T Ford and tries to melt the heart of the mute Sarah.
The first-act number called “New Music,” in which Coalhouse finally succeeds, is exquisite. As in the opening, every element of stagecraft swells into perfection here, as Sarah finally joins her Coalhouse, and Father returns from the pole to a home forever altered. As the lovers, Mitchell and LaChanze offer a pair of perfectly matched, heart-stopping performances.
A dapper and casual musician sucked into the vortex of racial violence, Mitchell becomes a star onstage at the Shubert--charismatic, dignified, incapable of a false move. LaChanze is simply radiant in everything she does, particularly in her blistering ballad, “Your Daddy’s Son,” which performs the remarkable feat of making us understand how Sarah could abandon her child for dead.
The famous are used extremely efficiently as symbols. In cleverly staged scenes, both Henry Ford (Bill Carmichael) and J.P. Morgan (Michael McCarty) appear on a catwalk far above the crowds. Harry Houdini (the winning Jason Graae) is seen as both a worn-out has-been and a symbol whose miraculous escapes are a source of comfort to the poor. This phenomenon is explicated in Ahrens’ characteristically smart lyric: “When you’re trapped and failure seems imminent / think of Houdini, that fabulous immigrant. . . .”
The musical is heavy with drama, and it sometimes seems as if there is little breathing room from one soaring ballad, one heartbreaking act of violence to the next. Two quiet and graceful moments do stand out--a first-act scene of unexpected civility between Tateh and Mother, strangers on a train platform, and a second-act brief moment of beauty called “Sarah Brown Eyes,” in which the doomed Coalhouse remembers the moment when he first found the redemption of love.
But some other moments seem cramped and rushed with drama. A police beating in Lawrence, Mass., and another in New Rochelle are both fast and furious and not wholly convincing, while a pivotal scene at New York’s Morgan Library is stretched out too long, despite a fine performance by Allan Louis as Booker T. Washington. The musical at these times threatens to self-destruct from one too many hyperbolic moments.
Miraculously, however, it never implodes. Time and again, McNally and Ahrens pull out a restraining influence and a specific human emotion that anchors the show.
“Ragtime” has improved since it opened in Toronto last December; that company, with Mitchell, is scheduled to open on Broadway in January. With the excellent Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman and some minor but crucial rewriting, “Ragtime” is less strident than in Toronto. Eugene Lee’s set, which features impressive and wide-ranging projections by Wendall K. Harrington, allows the story to be told with astonishing efficiency and keeps out of the way of the emotional tempests raging across the stage.
Developed from ground up by producer Garth Drabinsky, “Ragtime” is an impressive achievement of producing, of a kind rarely seen today. Opening on the heels of President Clinton’s speech about race in America, “Ragtime” has the rare distinction of being timely, even as it promises to be timeless.
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* “Ragtime,” Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City, Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m., except week of June 30-July 6: Tuesday, Thursday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; dark July 4. Indefinitely. $35-$75. (800) 447-7400. Running time: 3 hours.
Blake McIver Ewing: The Little Boy
John Dossett: Father
Marcia Mitzman Gaven: Mother
Scott Carollo: Mother’s Younger Brother
Robert Nichols: Grandfather
Brian Stokes Mitchell: Coalhouse Walker Jr.
Allan Louis: Booker T. Washington
John Rubinstein: Tateh
Danielle Wiener: The Little Girl
Jason Graae: Harry Houdini
Michael McCarty: J.P. Morgan
Bill Carmichael: Henry Ford
Judy Kaye: Emma Goldman
Susan Wood: Evelyn Nesbit
Wade Williams: Willie Conklin
Jewel Tompkins: Sarah’s friend
With: William Akey, Keith Bennett, Amy Bodnar, Doug Carfrae, Andre Carthen, Efrem D. Channell, Lucy Daggett, Gregg Engle, Lovena Fox, Duane Martin Foster, Steve Girardi, Marylee Graffeo, Keith Lee Grant, Mary Gutzi, Trevion Johnson, Eva Jenickova, Peter Kevoian, Deidre Lang, Robert Loftin, George McDaniel, Rick Negron, Phineas Newborn, Robert Nichols, Art Palmer, Jim Raposa, Laura Soltis, Allyson Tucker, ‘Nita Whitaker, Mindy Franzese Wild, Crystal Williams, Wade Williams, Jamal Woods, Cathy Wydner, Sharon Young-Fuller.
A Livent (U.S.) production. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed by Frank Galati. Musical staging by Graciela Daniele. Production design Eugene Lee. Costumes Santo Loquasto. Sound Jonathan Deans. Lighting Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Orchestrations William David Brohn. Musical director David Holcenberg. Projections Wendall K. Harrington. Magic by Franz Harary.
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