PPAC's "Ragtime": Melting Plot

The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: PPAC)

Adapting a huge and sprawling book for the stage is always a daunting task, rife with challenges. Ragtime, the 1998 musical, winner of Tony Awards for its Book by Terrance McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and original Orchestrations by William David Brohn, was such an adaptation, based on the popular 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, made into a popular film in 1981. In this musicalized version, it's the score that primarily makes the show as wondrous as it is, including cakewalks, gospel, marches and, of course, ragtime. Scott Joplin would have been proud, as the music itself proudly proclaims the greatness of America as the great melting pot, covering the stories of three representative families. In this touring company, now at Providence Performing Arts Center, with Direction and Choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, there is much to enjoy and applaud, despite those inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters. This is a superb rendition of this deservedly acclaimed piece of theater.

As those familiar with the novel and film version will recall, those three families portrayed (beginning in 1902) have eventual interlocking stories, each with a strong central character. There is the tale of the black Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker (Chris Sams) and his lover Sarah (Leslie Jackson), who gives birth to their baby. Then there is the upper class white suburban family from New Rochelle consisting of characters known only as Father (Troy Bruchwalski), Grandfather (Bob Marcus), Mother's Younger Brother (Donald Coggin), Little Boy (Colin Myers, alternating with Jordan Santiago) and its central figure, Mother (Kate Turner). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Matthew Curiano) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as Little Girl (Cara Myers, alternating with Leilani Santiago). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Admiral Peary (Todd Berkich), Harry Houdini (Mark Alpert), Evelyn Nesbit (Jillian Van Niel), Booker T. Washington (Jeffrey Johnson II), Emma Goldman (Sandy Zwier), Henry Ford (John Anker Bow) and J. P. Morgan (Berkich again), as well as some fictional roles such as Sarah's friend (Aneesa Folds), and the head of a local fire brigade Willie Conklin (Joe Callahan). Three local actors (Tray Abercrombie, Gabriel Johnson and Aiden Graham) are alternating in the role of Young Coalhouse.

Even a cursory glance at the cast's size and variety, obviously heavy with historical figures, gives a clue to its being overpopulated with so many characters to absorb or get to know, and many of them are only tangential to any of the three main stories. Nonetheless there are several songs that feature some of these minor roles, sometimes distracting and detracting from the heart of the tales. There are some rousing songs (“Wheels of a Dream”, “Till We Reach That Day” and especially the haunting “New Music”), but also some insignificant ones. As is the case with many a musical based on a novel, (for example, the original “Color Purple” before its recent transforming condensation), one's involvement with fundamental themes is diluted. There is also the issue of highly improbable coincidences that interconnect the stories which won't be divulged here. Despite these issues, the score carries the day, making for a truly memorable theatrical experience. The opening number alone is worth the price of admission, surely one of musical theater's greatest, right up there with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as an introductory masterpiece of stagecraft. But there are also more than a few clever yet subtle touches, such as Father betraying his bigotry by not shaking hands with a black seaman and not singing later in the ensemble number that hails equality, or Tateh gradually losing his tallis along with his Jewish identity.

The standout performers include Jackson, whose voice makes you wish Sarah was a larger role, Sams, whose voice is equally impressive (best in his high range), and Turner, whose acting is pivotal to the believability of the show . The creative elements, from the Scenic Design by Kevin Depinet, to the Sound Design by Craig Cassidy (which needs some adjusting), Lighting Design by Nike Baldassari, Projection Design (with some great silhouette effects) by Mike Tutaj, and Costume Design by Gail Baldoni, are all professional. The sets are somewhat streamlined for this tour, but this actually enhances the work with more focus on the players.

This time around, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with riches.

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