Trinity Rep's "Ragtime": Ever the Melting Plot

Rebecca Gibel (as Evelyn Nesbit) & The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

When news first broke that Trinity Rep had scheduled as its final show of the season the 1998 musical Ragtime, it struck one that this epic piece of Americana was a perfect choice for a true repertory company with a suitably sprawling venue like the Chace Theater. The opening number alone has always been 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. Most of the versions seen in the past presented three distinct groups singing the title song in a strikingly syncopated rhythm, separate from one another from the start, long before they discover what they would eventually learn to share. Surprisingly, in this version, Director Curt Columbus and Choreographer Shannon Jenkins have no such distinctions, with the entire cast mingled, with premature anticipation of a future melting pot of cultures. Frankly, this approach lacks the visual force of the productions seen on Broadway, on tour and in other regional theaters over the past couple of decades. It no longer raises goose bumps, and while it requires more of an audience's imagination, it is no longer as magical nor is it reflective of the score's syncopation.

Adapting a huge and sprawling book for the stage is always a daunting task, rife with huge challenges. Ragtime, 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, 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 that great melting pot, with the stories of three representative families. Despite the inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters, it has become a deservedly acclaimed piece of theater, which has now taken on much relevance in these politically scandalous times, especially in its depiction of the importance of immigrants to our country.

Rachael Warren (as Mother) & Mauro Hantman (as Father) & The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

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 Jr. (Wilkie Ferguson III) and his lover Sarah (Mia Ellis), 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 (Mauro Hantman), Grandfather (Brian McEleney), Mother's Younger Brother (Alexander DeVasconcelos Matos), Boy (Evan Andrew Horwitz) and its central figure, Mother (Rachael Warren). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Charlie Thurston) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as Girl (Olivia Miller). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Harry Houdini (Stephen Thorne), Evelyn Nesbit (Rebecca Gibel), Booker T. Washington (Taavon Gamble), Emma Goldman (Janice Duclos), Henry Ford (McEleney again) and J. P. Morgan (Fred Sullivan Jr.). 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; there is in fact a cast of seventeen, ten of whom are Resident Acting Company members. There are some rousing songs (the title song, as well as “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 (except for Boy's inexplicable pyschic fortunetelling).   Despite these issues, the score carries the day, making for a truly memorable theatrical experience. This show demands excellence from its four leads, and Ferguson, Ellis, Warren and Thurston don't disappoint, nor does the choral singing.

Fred Sullivan Jr. (as J.P.Morgan) & Brian McEleney (as Henry Ford) & The Cast of Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

The creative elements are a very mixed bag. The spare unit set by Eugene Lee is, according to the program notes, meant to "imagine" us into a rehearsal room to show how we as a people keep rehearsing the same issues, but minimizes the show's potential historical impact. Additionally the use of a mix of modern and period attire (probably to illustrate how problems persist from era to era) by Costume Designer Kara Harmon (for example, a modern t-shirt proclaiming “the future is Latina”) is distracting (though there is a very clever newspaper costume for Gibel, while she sings about being “the girl in the swing” with no swing in sight). On the plus side, there is the multitasking Music Direction by Michael Rice (leading a band of six), fine Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, and Lighting Design by Dan Scully. The heroine of the performance was Foley Artist (and Associate Director) Julia Locascio, who continuously provides crucial sound effects. There are some witty visuals, such as a human assembly line and the use of a steering wheel to approximate a halo for Henry Ford.

Mia Ellis (as Sarah) & Wilkie Ferguson III (as Coalhouse) in "Ragtime"
(photo: Mark Turek)

This time around, for three more weeks, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with musical riches, just when we needed a diversion from undocumented presidents.

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