Diverse and Parentless at the Turn of the Century: RAGTIME Revived at Toby’s

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Diverse and Parentless at the Turn of the Century: RAGTIME Revived at Toby’s

Ragtime

 

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com September 23, 2015

There is no such thing as the Great American Musical any more than there is such a thing as the Great American Novel, but if there were, Ragtime, in revival at Toby’s in Columbia, would have a plausible claim to the title, at least on the strength of the book. Ragtime is fictional, of course, but with a large admixture of American history and an even larger admixture of meditation on what America means. If it doesn’t cover everything, like the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel on which it was based, Ragtime (book by Terrence McNally, music byStephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) still touches on more, and says more, about the American condition than any other musical I know.

The first thing it talks about is white America’s dream of innocence. The opening tableau is a gathering of the gracious white Protestant citizens of New Rochelle, dressed all in white. Their happiness seems to reside directly in their isolation. “There were gazebos and there were no Negroes,” they rejoice. “And there were no immigrants,” the chorus adds. The prologue (“Ragtime”) suggests that these isolations are about to take a tumble, as the ragtime music the white folks exult in is seen to emanate from black Harlem, and socialist Emma Goldman (Coby Kay Callahan) is seen stirring up the immigrant factory workers. (A full disclosure that is more of a brag: the historical Goldman was this reviewer’s distant relative.) As the chorus is augmented by crowds of blacks and crowds of Jewish tenement-dwellers, as well as various luminaries, including Harry Houdini (Ben Lurye), Booker T. Washington (Anwar Thomas), Henry Ford (David James), and J.P. Morgan (David James), it is clear that the new century will be full of both conflict and dazzlement. And that amazing combination is indeed the animating perception of the musical.

The action then turns to one family of the initially innocent New Rochelle Protestants. Young son Edgar (Jace Willard on press night), through whose eyes much of the action is observed, sees a family with such an abundance of resources and energy that Father (David Bosley-Reynolds) can afford to sail away on an expedition with Admiral Peary to the North Pole and leave Mother (brilliantly sung by Elizabeth Rayca) to her own devices. Father’s exuberance and confidence and adventurousness are positives, even if they exist by virtue of inattention to less good things about our country. But there will be a reckoning with them.

On his outbound voyage, Father’s ship passes that on which Tateh (Josh Simon) an immigrant from Jewish Eastern Europe is sailing to America with his daughter Little Girl (Ella Boodin on press night), having left Tateh’s wife behind. A father abandoning his family for the nonce, passing a father without his wife (in the book it is clearer he has abandoned her too, though perhaps for cause): the coincidence underlines a recurring theme: for all the energy and exuberance of this country, it correlates with the loss of or absence of parents.

Another parentless child quickly appears, a black baby found abandoned in the garden, whom Mother decides to take under her wing. This de facto guardianship is quickly succeeded by another, that of Sarah, the baby’s mother (sung by the astonishing Ada Satterfield), and then it becomes apparent that a ragtime performer named Coalhouse Walker is the missing father. Better yet, Coalhouse seems bent on reuniting with Sarah and reconstituting the family. Walker is played and sung by the dominating Kevin McAllister, the only Equity member in the cast, an actor who is utterly plausible as the personification of both ragtime and (eventually) black rage.

So the America depicted here is a place of quests: Father’s for the unknown horizon, Tateh’s for a land where he and his daughter can prosper, Coalhouse’s for reuniting with Sarah and raising his son in a world where blacks are regarded and treated as equals. To these quests might be added two more: Younger Brother’s for some ideal he can build a life around and Mother’s, a quieter one, to nurture a family, whatever contours her decency and generosity cause it to assume. And all of these quests are played out among the novelties and sensations of an exuberant American decade: among the things which will figure in the plot are Henry Ford’s Model T, J.P. Morgan’s library of priceless incunabula, the notorious charms of uber-courtesan Evelyn Nesbit (Julia Lancione), and the antics of escape artist Harry Houdini.

But it is not all fun and cheer. In particular, as audiences probably know coming in, Coalhouse’s quest and to a lesser extent Younger Son’s, will fail tragically, in ways that resonate today, with Ferguson-like police violence against people of color, followed by failures of justice that can only be interpreted as racially-motivated.

In the end the parentless children and the partnerless parents left behind fuse into an actual family, which may be viewed as Doctorow’s prophecy that in America all groups will converge. This vision is still more aspirational than historical. But it is a prophecy in keeping with the sense of optimism that underlies even the depths of the tragedy. And it makes for good musical theater.

Which leads us to the question how good a musical is it? It is, to repeat a term, dazzling, and the Toby’s production, directed by Toby Orenstein and Lawrence B. Munsey, does not stint on the dazzle, whether it be Evelyn Nesbit on a red velvet swing (seen above) or in a full-scale disappearance illusion. But dazzle alone, even when abetted by a first-rate script, doesn’t quite make for greatness. Mine may be a minority opinion (the show won the Drama Desk Best Musical award in 1998 and the Tony award for the best score), but I think the musical falls short in its songs, all of which are serviceable, but none of which is transcendent. Flaherty and Ahrens are certainly journeymen with a long string of hit shows, but you look at their joint oeuvre and it’s all … serviceable. Comparing their songs to say, the work of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (If/Then) or Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) or Jason Robert Brown (The Last 5 Years), you can hear the difference. Greater artists can do more, can move you more, can create echoes among the songs in a show that the audience will consciously or unconsciously process. Here there is little you’d even wish to hum, the title song excepted.

But go anyway; you’ll have a good time. This production reportedly revives productions Toby’s has done to popular success that garnered Helen Hayes Award nominations. Obviously the Toby’s team has a crowd-pleaser that also has a lot to say.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit Jeri Tidwell.

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