Saturday, July 28, 2012


Captivating RAGTIME lights up the stage at the Shaw Festival

The early 20th century was the time of great change in America. Exploding population growth, creation of the nation’s industrial philosophy, a determination of the political system, the growth of the union movement, and changing attitudes toward minorities, all filled the era.

E. L. Doctorow’s inventive 1975 novel, RAGTIME, tells the story of three groups of Americans during that time.

The upper-class is epitomized by Papa, an industrialist and adventurer.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a Harlem musician, who finds himself being marginalized by a group of white bullies, represents African-Americans.

Tateh, a new Jewish Latvian arrival in the country, showcases the burden of the immigrants who must find a place for themselves in the great American tossed salad.

Terrance McNally has taken the Doctorow volume and written the book for a musical drama. When coupled with Lynn Ahrens lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s gospel, ragtime and cakewalk music, the results are compelling theatre.

Both the book and the musical use invented characters, combined with well-known real people of the day, including Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Admiral Perry and Emma Goldman. This gives an air of historically accurate illusion to the story. In reality, though many of the incidents are real, others are fictionalized to add drama to the historama format.

The musical, which opened in New York in 1998 and went on to be a major Broadway hit, premiered in Toronto in 1996. The Broadway production showcased Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and Lea Michele.

The story develops on multiple levels, but all blend together as the characters accidentally interact.

It’s 1902 in New Rochelle, New York, home of Father, who is leaving for a voyage with Admiral Peary (Goodbye, My Love). His ship passes a vessel bringing European immigrants to the country. He marvels that these people would give up so much to come to America. Immigrant Tateh can only wonder why Father would be leaving, while Mother yearns for adventure (Journey On).

Mother’s young brother becomes enchanted with Evelyn Nesbit, a showgirl whose life and romances become the focus of attention (Crime of the Century), later becoming entranced by union organizer Emma Goldman (The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square) and then Coalhouse Walker’s crusade (He Wanted to Say).

In Harlem, Coalhouse Walker, a well known ragtime musician (His Name is Coalhouse Walker), finds that his girlfriend, Sarah, has run. Sarah, who is pregnant, has the child away (Your Daddy’s Son), and in desperation leaves him outside the house in New Rochelle. Mother finds the baby and eventually, the baby and Sarah are taken in. Coalhouse, learning the whereabouts of Sarah and the baby, buys a new Ford (Henry Ford) as a way to travel to Sarah.

Tateh, in need of employment and safety for his daughter, escapes from New York’s slums, and travels by railway as far as his meager savings can carry them. He changes trains in New Rochelle, accidentally meeting and talking briefly to Mother (Nothing Like the City).

The three plot symbols intersect when Mother takes in Sarah and her newborn son, Coalhouse comes to the house in New Rochelle to try and convince Sarah to reconnect. Mother meets Tateh in Atlantic City and the two become a couple on a path to self fulfillment (Our Children).

The play steams along toward an emotional climax (Make Them Hear You), that alters everyone’s lives and reflects on the changing society, a society like a ragtime beat that is often out of sync.

This is a well-integrated script that intertwines the songs, spoken lines, music, and dancing in such a way that one cannot operate without the other.

Shaw’s production is enveloping. Maxwell has a clear idea of Doctorow’s intended message and delivers it. The show is well-paced and the actors develop clear characterizations.

Maxwell is helped by Paul Sportelli’s musical direction. He is careful to have his actors sing the meanings to the songs, not just words. Sue LePage’s costumes and sets create the right visual and era images. Choreographer Valerie Moore effectively adapts the movements to showcase the ever-changing musical sounds and moods.

Thom Allison clearly creates a prideful Coalhouse Walker, Jr. with deep convictions. He has an excellent singing voice and inhabits the role. Alana Hibbert has wonderful vocal abilities and makes for a believable Sarah.

In a highlight performance, Patty Jamieson creates a Mother who is multi-faceted and a real person. Kate Henning is convincing as Emma Goldman. Evan Alexander’s Younger Brother is a real person, no acting here. Julie Martell delights as Evelyn Nesbit.

Only Jay Turvey and Aadin Church disappoint. Turvey’s Tateh is an unreal, surface-level stereotype of the Jewish immigrant, complete with a mocking accent. Church’s Booker T. Washington is almost unintelligible in articulation and volume, and flat in affect.

Capsule judgement: Shaw’s RAGTIME is a must see for anyone who loves a well-staged, integrated musical drama, with superlative music and meaningful lyrics.