Ragtime is Shaw's Jackie Maxwell at her bold best - "Yes, we can" versus "No, we can't."
Introducing Ragtime to Shaw is not without risk. In fact, Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, has repeatedly displayed her mettle regarding hazardous content over the past few seasons. She is a gutsy lady! And that's the way modern theatre should be. George Bernard is always a safe given. And My Fair Lady was uncomplicated to mark the 50th season, but to follow up with Ragtime... wow!
The appeal is visceral. The lady sitting beside me regularly emitted loud oohs and ahs, responding to mean language, and in a blazing gun scene, she screamed and almost jumped off her seat!
The stars of this production are Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker and Patty Jamieson as Mother. Their fine voices are assisted by a terrific chorus, but they carry the show and are a delight to watch in action.
Ragtime celebrated its world premiere in Toronto in 1996 and opened on Broadway on January 18, 1998, leading the 1998 Tony Awards with 13 nominations, winning for Best Score, Book and Orchestrations, and both the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Musical and Best Score.
In this grand-scale musical about the coarse beginnings of contemporary America, we view struggle, successes and failure through the eyes of three conventional American families - a white, upper-middle class established family in New Rochelle who all wear white, a talented African-American musician in Harlem who wears flashy clothes, and a drab but aspiring Eastern European immigrant and his daughter in the Lower East Side. Thrown in like spice for good measure in this American melting pot are period notables such as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Evelyn Nesbit, the famous Girl on a Swing.
The family in New Rochelle stereotypically known as Mother, Father, Younger Brother and Little Boy must cope as Father (Benedict Campbell) leaves to travel to the Arctic with explorer Admiral Robert Peary.
Mother finds an African-American baby abandoned in her garden. She meets Sarah (Alana Hibbert), the mother who can't or won't speak. Coalhouse, a ragtime musician, searches for Sarah, the woman he loves and when he finds her and his son, he sets out to win them back. Tateh (Jay Turvey), a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, arrives in New York with his daughter and a dream, and after much hardship, selling paper cutout silhouettes of people's faces, he becomes part of the mushrooming movie business.
We experience America through these sets of characters along with the magic of Harry Houdini (Kelly Wong), the financial acumen of J.P. Morgan (Anthony Malarky), the strident politics of Emma Goldman (Kate Hennig), and the fight for freedom of Booker T. Washington (Aadin Church).
The music is an amazing mix of Harlem ragtime rhythms, Tin Pan Alley and Lower East Side klezmer. You won't remember any lyrics or hum them upon returning home as with My Fair Lady, but tunes such as "Ragtime," the show's opening number, "The Crime of the Century," and "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.," capture one's attention and involvement.
Allison nails the role of Coalhouse Walker, the charismatic jazz pianist, and he is worth the price of admission alone. Maxwell in her theatre notes, suggests that even the musical's creators would be hard pressed to imagine the nation's first black president in 2008, yet the current atmosphere in the U.S. still involves a penchant for racism, the kind that's supposedly overcome in Ragtime. Walker seeks revenge after his car is destroyed by white racists led by a formidable Neil Barclay, and from that point on, the tension builds.
Turvey plays Tateh as the perennial optimist who becomes a little too saccharine-like, while Kate Hennig excels in the discordant realm of conflict. Evelyn Nesbit, the girl on a swing, too much in the Turvey mode, needs some stronger erotic presence, but after all the racial conflict, perhaps that is asking for too much. Evan Alexander Smith as Younger Brother is admirable as a nouveau revolutionary who would be welcome in today's car-bombing scene. "I know how to make things explode!"
Sue LePage's striking period costumes and her set with its heavy metal walkways and balconies evoking visions of factories and a new assembly-line era, merge with scaffolding and are perfect for the tumultuous themes. A Model T Ford is a joy to see in working condition on stage.
Ragtime is a huge production with a large cast and quickly changing scenes that focus on the lives of the three principal groups - WASPs, blacks, and immigrants. Children (Morgan Hilliker & Eden Kennedy as the boy and Jaden Carmichael & Aidan Tye as the girl) play two key singing roles.
What could be more appropriate than a syncopated or ragged rhythm that began as dance music in the red-light districts of African American communities in St. Louis and New Orleans years before being published as popular sheet music for piano? Bravo to Paul Sportelli for his musical direction and Valerie Moore for her choreography. The lighting by Alan Brodie is ideal with appropriate dark undertones and the team of Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson (Projections) kept the lady beside me on the edge of her seat!
"What can happen in a year?" Father innocently questions at the beginning just before his trip to the Arctic, assuming that life is rather simple and predictable, but Mother later confronts him with, "You travel all over the world and learn nothing." This is the critical question about America itself. A dominant world player for over a century, what has it learned? The "Wheels of a Dream" duet by Coalhouse and Sarah suggests that America is constantly moving forward, but wheels often gets stuck in thick, soggy mud. In the perennial struggle for hope and change, Ragtime is essentially the volcanic meeting of "Yes, we can" versus "No, we can't." It will be fascinating to observe how American playgoers react to Maxwell's courage.
It was the music of something beginning,|
An era exploding, a century spinning...
The cast of the Broadway musical Ragtime performs the amazing
opening title number. On The Rosie O'Donnell Show, January 19, 1998.