Ogunquit's "Ragtime": Ever the Melting Plot

The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Ogunquit Playhouse)

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 Terrence 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, which had been made into an equally 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 (winning Tonys for score and orchestrations over Lion King no less). 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 company, with Direction by Seth Skylar-Heyn and Choreography by Jesse Robb, there is much to enjoy and applaud, despite those inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters into this overstuffed melting plot. 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 (Darnell Abraham) and his lover Sarah (Lindsay Roberts), 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 (Jamie Laverdiere), Grandfather (David Studwell), Mother's Younger Brother (Julian Decker), and its central figure, Mother (Kirsten Scott), as well as The Little Boy, Edgar (Tyler Wladis, alternating with Sol Thomas). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Josh Young) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as The Little Girl (Ella Luke-Tedeschi, alternating with Ella Riley). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Admiral Peary (Joel Robertson), Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel), Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Amburn), Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton), Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst), Henry Ford (Jack Doyle), Stanford White (Sam Hartley) and J. P. Morgan (Joel Robertson), as well as some fictional roles such as Sarah's friend (Galyana Castillo), the head of a local fire brigade Willie Conklin (Joey Elrose) and Kathleen (Mary Malaney).

Josh Young (Tateh) & Ella Luke-Tedeschi (Little Girl) in "Ragtime"
(photo: Ogunquit Playhouse)

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, at about ten minutes, 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 Roberts, whose voice makes you wish Sarah was a larger role, the powerful Abraham, whose acting is pivotal to the believability of the show, the gradual emergence of Scott and Young, and Wladis, a scene stealer if there ever was one. The creative elements, from the fluid Scenic Design by Tim Mackabee (including an amazing Model T), to the Sound Design by Kevin Heard, Lighting Design by Richard Latta, Music Direction by Jeffrey Campos, and the original Broadway Costume Design by Santo Loquasto, are all professional.

As the audience took their seats, they were confronted not with a curtain but with the majestic sight of the face of the Statue of Liberty, hinting at the poignancy to come, especially given today's attitudes toward immigrants and minorities. A show that treats the issues of poverty and wealth, justice and freedom, and hope and despair, and does so with such strength, is even more pertinent in these troubling days. This time around, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with riches, summed up in the words to the title number that opens the show:

The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb...
It was the music:
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it ragtime...Ragtime!

No comments:

Post a Comment