Review: Ragtime

Adapting an epic novel for the stage can be a tricky proposition. Unless you plan on doing a two-part, eight hour show (like the 1980s epic NICHOLAS NICKLEBY) you will likely have to make cuts to the story and perhaps excise characters or storylines completely (see also: LES MISERABLES). NICKLEBY and LES MIS are contrasts in success, one having relegated itself to being a Trivial Pursuit answer, while the other is arguably the most successful musical ever. So where does RAGTIME fit in?

When the musical version of E.L. Doctorow’s popular novel debuted on Broadway in 1998, it was a show of epic proportions, featuring real fireworks and an actual working Model T automobile. Written by the team of Flaherty & Ahrens (last represented at The Hobby Center by the national tour of ANASTASIA and to be featured next year in TUTS’ presentation of ONCE ON THIS ISLAND). The show featured numerous people who are now well-known both inside and outside the Broadway circles, including Brian Stokes Mitchell as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Audra MacDonald (in her third Tony-winning role) as Sarah, and even a very young Lea Michele (from GLEE) as Young Girl. The show was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won four. It might have done even better, if it hadn’t had the misfortune of being in the same season as the juggernaut THE LION KING. It did, deservingly so, win for best score. More on that in a bit.

The story of RAGTIME concerns three principle storylines:

  • A white well-to-do family from New Rochelle, New York. They are known as Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather, and The Little Boy. When a black baby is abandoned in their garden, they become entangled in a complicated love affair and ultimately the dangerous race relations of the time.
  • Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a musician from Harlem who is courting a woman named Sarah. Coalhouse is a good man who is about to have fate turn his life upside down in more ways that one.
  • Tateh and The Little Girl, two Jewish immigrants from Latvia. Will they find the American dream, or is the promise of a new life an empty one?

Mixed in with these fictional characters are the likes of Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, and other historical figures who bring the turn-of-the-century story to life and give it an added layer of realism. It’s easy to understand why TUTS chose this show as part of its 50th Anniversary Season. The themes of race relations and immigration are as relevant today as they were both during the time in which the show is set and also the era of its Broadway debut. RAGTIME both benefits and suffers from such a large storyboard and cast of characters. The Tony-winning book is mostly well-written but there are times where it feels like some characters really don’t have a true reason for being there (Harry Houdini in particular, who adds some flavor but is never really part of the overarching story save for one key “revelation” near the end). Evelyn Nesbit, who has a much larger role in the novel and 1970s film version, is also here more for laughs and would probably not be missed if her storyline was removed. She is there to influence the path of another character, which could be done in any number of other ways without her.

Even with these sometimes superfluous characters, RAGTIME is a wonderful and emotional journey through the early 1900s. TUTS wisely chose to use the Tony-winning orchestrations and the huge pit of musicians has never sounded better in one of their shows. I’ve also been a frequent critic of their sound issues, which have plagued many of their recent productions. However, at last night’s performance of RAGTIME, I only noticed one small missed cue (and it could have even been interference with the radio transmission of the mic). The sound was close to perfect and a welcome change from the past.

The scenic design was not quite as “large” as the Broadway production, but that’s not the least bit surprising and the design team did a great job of making the show feel “epic” when needed within a more compact space. The main set pieces were two metal staircases, moved throughout the show to represent various locations including the Morgan Library, an expedition ship, and more. A rear-projection screen covering the entire back wall of the stage added a nice element to many scenes. This is a show that doesn’t need epic sets to tell the story – the music and the soaring voices of the entire cast can carry it, even on a bare stage.

Ezekiel Andrews makes a wonderful Coalhouse Walker, Jr., perfect in both voice and in emotion during the book scenes. His transformation from Act One to Act Two is believable and heartbreaking. He is a man conflicted and trying to do the right thing in a situation where there is no easy solution. “Justice” can be a difficult thing to define sometimes. Danyel Fulton is his love Sarah and shines with Andrews on the show’s most famous anthem, “Wheels of a Dream.” Evan Kinnane was also a standout as Mother’s Younger Brother. He did an excellent job of bringing the character’s conflict to life and showing his struggles of wanting to be accepted and be a part of something important. I also loved Robert Petkoff (last seen at TUTS in the national tour of FUN HOME) as Tateh, a role made famous by Mandy Patinkin in the film version. He has a beautiful voice and was completely believable as the Jewish immigrant who only wants the best for his daughter. Local favorite Courtney Markowitz is very strong as Mother, delivering a powerhouse rendition of “Back to Before” late in Act Two. Michael Karash should also be recognized for his excellent portrayal of The Little Boy. I could probably highlight each person in the cast individually, as this was a very strong cast and seemed to gel beautifully. The choral numbers, particularly the opening  “Ragtime” and the show’s final chorus of “Wheels of a Dream” soar off the stage and lift the production to new heights.

My final though is on the show’s ending, which I won’t reveal here. However, it carries an interesting extra layer of poignancy in 2019 (because of the state of race relations in America over the last few years particularly). The show never preaches, at least not overtly, and the ending is the same as it was in the late 90s and, indeed, in the film version. So it’s not as if the director “modernized” or changed the ending. It’s just a bit more powerful knowing what we know now. RAGTIME shows us how far we’ve come, but also how far we still have to go. And it does it with some of the most beautiful music ever put on a stage.

**** out of *****
“Ragtime”
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow
Directed & Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Presented by Theatre Under the Stars – The Hobby Center
Now through April 28th
Tickets: www.tuts.com
Photo: Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and the cast of Theatre Under the Stars production of “Ragtime” at The Hobby Center

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