Ragtime’ Foreshadowing the Era of Obama
By: Isa Goldberg
Imagine the shape of our American heritage as a series of simple lines and curves. Move through them quickly like an animation and a silent movie stutters into motion. Now watch them move with full orchestration and you have “Ragtime”, making its resounding revival at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel, the musical follows the pageant of American history from the immigration of Eastern European Jews and the invention of silent movies to the civil and racial unrest that exploded at the turn of the Twentieth Century.
Playwright Terrence McNally applies deft painterly strokes in creating silhouettes of the auspicious Americans who represent the fabric of the period. Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio), Harry Houdini (Jonathan Hammond), J.P. Morgan (Michael X. Martin) and Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) among others, parade around the action, presenting their mini biographies in the third person.
But the complicity with which Henry Ford’s Model T achieves its central role and the immediacy with which Emma Goldman’s radical labor issues affect the narrative is what makes this a fascinating and enduring musical. The central story upon which these historical figures implode is about a wealthy manufacturer (Ron Bohmer) and his suburban family, his escapade on the open seas with Admiral Peary (Michael X. Martin), the immigrants he sees there braving the journey to America, and the black ragtime piano player whose illegitimate child his wife takes into their family in his absence. The tale and all of the characters in it are deeply rooted in the soil of American democracy.
Stephen Flaherty’s score plays on the repetition of the ragtime theme underscoring the on stage action as it juts from history to fiction and back again, weaving a seamless web. Even though the story is about three contrasting cultures (African American, Jewish and WASP), there is a simplicity and flow to the converging narratives. As Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics describe, “there was music playing, catching a nation in its prime”. But it is also the music that “haunts” and “taunts” Sarah, the unwed mother, who is in love with the enigmatic piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington).
Stephanie Umoh who plays Sarah, has an earthy voice and a penetrating presence, as she recreates the role for which Audra McDonald won one of the four Tony Awards the original 1998 production received. In this “tough act to follow” she holds her own. And Christiane Noll as the wife of the manufacturer (and later the wife of silent filmmaker, Baron Ashkenazy) is mellifluous, offering a generous, nurturing quality. Ron Bohmer cuts a formidable figure as her husband and Robert Petkoff plays Tateh, metamorphosing from a shtetl dweller to a successful movie mogul (Baron Ashkenazy).
Indeed all of the actors are at the top of their game. Jonathan Hammond’s Houdini sings like a strong man; Donna Migliaccio as Emma Goldman makes for a passionate presence; Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Henry Ford) emerges with the innocence of eager youth; and Bobby Steggert as an upper class WASP turned terrorist in the name of racial equality, resembles the explosives he invents. The singing, especially those beautiful choral passages to the ragtime melody, is divine.
If there is a weakness to the production, it surrounds the fact that the characters are, to a great extent, silhouettes much as we see during the overture and also in Tateh’s early portraits.
The dilemma is most visible in Darrington’s Coalhouse, whose attacks against white supremacy appear at first overblown rather than psychologically motivated. In fact, the second act in which so many different characters and narrative threads come together is at moments undermined by characters who in Act I appeared merely as etchings and symbols of their social condition.
Santo Loquasto’s vivid costuming mines the diversity of cultures, capturing the ragged times of early Jewish immigrants, the high-stepping fashion of the bourgeoisie and the flamboyance of the vaudevillians who, like Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise), get our attention if only for a moment. But it’s Derek McLane’s fabulous staging that speaks to the industrializing of America with steel ramps, bridges and arches creating a multitude of spaces. Only the minimalist and most essential set pieces appear here: the outline of a piano, the frame of a Model T, a board for a casket. The soul is in the music.
And director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge achieves the jubilant sweep of the musical, evoking the spirit of hope in our own time.
Neil Simon Theatre 250 West 52nd Street, between Broadway & Eighth Ave 212-307-4100