Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2003
As soon as I saw Ragtime announced on the Weston 2003 schedule, I knew it would be wonderful. Weston does just about everything well, but especially big musicals. I have fond memories of the productions of Most Happy Fella and Candide that I saw there, and so I booked tickets for this show immediately.
I was not disappointed. Ragtime is a tremendous musical, and Weston is billing it as their largest and most ambitious production in their 67 year history. With a cast of 29 to costume, a two story set, and props ranging from a pair of snowshoes to a model T Ford, this is a monumental production for any theatre to tackle. Weston has pulled it off flawlessly with a spectacularly talented cast, a fabulous set Howard Jones and glorious costumes by Miranda Hoffman, supported by seamless lighting by Kendall Smith and sound by Jason Romney. Susan Hunt Hagan has provided choreography which looked absolutely splendid from where I was sitting in the balcony, getting a Busy Berkley eye-view. Malcolm Ewen has directed the whole thing with sensitivity to the complex and often violent plot.
Ragtime is based on the 1975 novel by the same name by E.L. Doctorow. I attempted to read the book recently, and was put off by the graphic sex and violence, as well as the time I needed to invest in meeting and understanding the huge cast of characters – fictional and historical. In adapting the novel for the stage, Terrence McNally has removed the sex, but retained the violence, hence the warning issued by Weston that the show contains “adult content.” But Doctorow’s huge cast of characters and sweeping vision of America in 1906 works even better on stage than in print, and the musical comes together as a whole piece of passion and humanity.
The idyllic life of one white New Rochelle family is shattered when the husband/father goes off with Admiral Perry to explore the North Pole and a newborn black baby is discovered buried in the flowerbed. The baby is alive, and he and his mother Sarah are taken in. The baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a ragtime musician up in Harlem, finds his beloved Sarah, discovers his son, and persistently woos her until they come together as a family.
But their happiness is short-lived. Coalhouse’s prized model T Ford is vandalized by bigoted whites, and he vows not to marry Sarah until he receives justice. This maniacal pursuit leads both Coalhouse and Sarah to their deaths. In the meantime, her husband having returned, the white wife finds a widening gulf in their marriage as her contact with Coalhouse and Sarah, and with a Jewish immigrant named Tateh and his daughter, broaden her views and open her eyes.
A sub-plot involves the awakening of radical political, racial, and economic ideals in the wife’s younger brother, who is obsessed with starlet Evelyn Nesbit and becomes a disciple of activist Emma Goldman, both of whom are real historical figures. Other real people represented in the story include Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and J.P. Morgan.
McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens tell this story mostly through music, which means much choreography is required. I can hardly imagine how crowded the wings of the Weston Playhouse are with 29 performers, large set pieces, and substantial props like upright pianos and model T’s all awaiting their turns. The backstage choreography must be even more complex than what is taking place onstage, and so kudos to Stage Manager Christine D. Freeburg and what must be a substantial technical team.
Out of the 29 people on stage, there is not one weak link, not even the two children – Corey Hayes (age 12) and Allison Tobia (age 10). It will be hard to single out just a few for praise as everyone is just great and perfectly cast. Susan Haefner is moving and believable as Mother (the white family has no names) and she interacts nicely with Hayes as her rambunctious son. Soara-Joye Ross and C. Mingo Long handle most of the heavy drama as Sarah and Coalhouse, and they both sing beautifully, sounding equally good in their solos and duets.
Frances Limoncelli is a commanding presence as Emma Goldman, and Ron Nahass performs a few neat pseudo-escapes as Houdini. Michelle Dawson is delightfully daffy as Evelyn Nesbit, prancing about with a long white boa and repeatedly emitting a sound reminiscent of air escaping suddenly from a balloon.
David Bonanno is appealing as Tateh, although I enjoyed him more in his heavily ethnic guise in the first act than I did as the Americanized “Baron” in the second. His early numbers, where he enunciates so clearly the pain and frustration felt by a single father struggling to make a life for his young daughter in a strange land, are heartfelt.
The point is that this is heavy stuff. I would be very, very easy to tip the tone of the production just slightly and topple over the edge into melodrama. Ewen and his excellent cast never allow this to happen. Some horrible and horrifying things happen in the course of the show, but they are staged in a blatantly theatrical manner so that you understand the impact without having to witness any graphic spectacle. A strobe light and sound effects simulate gunfire, a beating takes place by the billy-clubs never make contact with the actress’s body. You get the point without being grossed out.
Ragtime took the Tonys for Best Book of a Musical, Original Score, and Orchestrations in 1998, losing Best Musical to the Disney spectacle The Lion King. Frankly, I think it is one of the most perfectly constructed musicals I have ever seen. This really is epic American theatre, in a top-notch production. You would be a fool not to take this opportunity to go and see it.
“Ragtime” runs through August 16 at the Weston Playhouse in Weston, VT. The show runs three hours with one intermission and is suitable for the children 13 and older. Call the box office at 802-824-5288 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2003