Review: Ragtime The Musical
By Perry Tannenbaum
Like Fiddler on the Roof, another musical with wide vistas, Ragtime The Musical begins its voyage back to 1906 by introducing us to groups of people. The stage begins to fill with comfortable, well-mannered white folk. Oppressed black folk, struggling for dignity and survival, form a crowd at the opposite side of the stage. Immigrants, disoriented and bewildered in the Promised Land, fill in the divide. Social activists Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman flank the groups, along with the celebrities who tower above them all, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and Evelyn Nesbit.
But while shtetl life in Czarist Russia remains quaint, picturesque, and old-fashioned with each new revival of Fiddler, the issues revisited in Ragtime – racial prejudice, women’s second-class citizenship, and intolerance toward immigrants – have bounced back in our faces with frightful new life. The superiority we could feel toward the injustice suffered by Coalhouse Walker Jr. has evaporated since the days when Ragtime was published by novelist E.L. Doctorow in 1975 and adapted by Terrence McNally for the 1998 musical. Trayvon Martin, Ferguson… the list goes on.
Women’s rights and the welcoming attitude symbolized by Lady Liberty are also threatened by the reactionary sentiments unleashed by the 2016 election, the odious barrage of anti-Muslim rhetoric, and the post-inauguration travel ban. So the current CPCC Theatre production of Ragtime is not only timely, but thanks to one of the best casts ever assembled on the Halton Theater stage, it’s also newly powerful.
Tyler Smith delivers the most scorching performance as Coalhouse, particularly in the ragtime pianist’s valedictory solo, “Make Them Hear You,” when he’s on the brink of martyrdom. It’s as devastating a Coalhouse as I’ve ever seen, including the original Broadway production and the first national tour. But the taunting and race-baiting that come at Coalhouse from Josh Logsdon as New Rochelle fire chief Will Conklin no longer seem to be clichéd. Where Brian Stokes Mitchell on Broadway might have asked himself “how would I have felt 90 years ago?” Smith is merely tapping into how he feels – and it’s very fierce and raw.
The voice and delivery are Broadway-worthy, so it’s not at all a slight when I say that Smith’s partner, Brittany Harrington, nearly reaches the same lofty level as Sarah. When they reconcile and introduce “Wheels of a Dream,” seated in front of their Model T roadster, Harrington reminds us that this dream belongs to them both. It’s a tribute to their combined power that director Tom Hollis nearly empties the stage of the entire ensemble when the song is reprised at the end as an anthem. Together, as the happy-ending segment of the cast strolls into the horizon, Smith and Harrington sing them off.
What struck me by surprise was how much more forcefully the peaceful Mother’s story resonates. It’s quite natural to think of Mother as one of the handy junctions in this artfully interlaced tale. She welcomes Sarah and her newborn baby into her New Rochelle home, drawing the abandoned Coalhouse in pursuit – before he even realizes that he is the father of her child. Younger Brother, a member of the same well-to-do household, has a string of idols, including Nesbit and Goldman, before joining Coalhouse after the bold seeker of justice has taken over J.P. Morgan’s Manhattan library.
While all this spectacle rages around her, Mother has begun to evolve, almost from the moment that Father sails off with Admiral Peary on his expedition to the North Pole. After welcoming Sarah and the newborn into the household, her empathy widens to Coalhouse. Smith exudes a Nat “King” Cole kind of savoir-faire at the keyboard, so we’re not surprised. Yet Grandfather (Brian Holloway) is horrified and, after he returns from his explorations, so is Father.
But in the intervening year after her audacious decision to open her doors to Sarah, Mother has discovered that she has a voice. Not a small revelation when it comes more than three presidential elections before she will get the vote.
So while Andy Faulkenberry has a fine revolutionary zeal as Younger Brother, while Megan Postle breathes Mosaic fire as Emma Goldman, and Patrick Ratchford is extraordinarily patrician and privileged as Father – one of his best-ever outings – it was Lucia Stetson as Mother who truly bowled me over. The arc of Stetson’s journey, from “What Kind of Woman” when she first meets Sarah to “Back to Before” when she realizes she cannot continue under Father’s restrictions, is stunning and inspiring. This is how much a person can evolve. To his credit, Ratchford lets us know that Father has also budged slightly from his bigotry when his brave stint as a hostage is done.
In a way, Billy Ensley personifies all immigrants as Tateh, who arrives at Ellis Island at precisely the moment when Father is embarking on his polar adventure. J.P. Morgan, Goldman, and Houdini are all wrapped into Tatah’s dreams of “Success” and disillusionment, but neither Doctorow nor McNally soft-pedal his Jewish heritage. Right before his wide-ranging fantasia, Ensley sings “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” in his first song, faring better with the Yiddish than the chorus of immigrants behind him.
Houdini, a circus-like attraction in Tim Eldred’s portrayal, likens achieving success to escaping from a cage, but it’s Goldman, a fellow Jew, who speaks home truths. When Tateh wraps his daughter (Annabel Lamm) in a prayer shawl to combat the cruel cold, Emma says his rabbi would approve. Tateh is indeed a role of Houdini tricksiness as he begins by cutting out silhouettes of celebrities, later toils and goes on strike at a Massachusetts textile mill, and finally becomes the quintessential American success story when he reinvents himself as an Atlantic City filmmaker, Baron Ashkenazy.
Against the sunniness that Ensley brings to this epic musical, Keith Logan as Booker T. Washington and John DeMicco as J.P. Morgan help to shape the dark tragedy at the Morgan Library. It seems so much more inevitable to me now than it did when I first saw the denouement in 1998. If we can’t trust policemen to hold fire in 2017 when a black man surrenders with his hands up, how could we expect that they’d behave otherwise before World War I?
“We are all Coalhouse,” the ensemble sings in the somber aftermath – with a fresh sting. These words now ring as true as yesterday’s headlines. Much more in this CP revival of Ragtime may strike you that way.