An Evening of
by Brad Barton
Last week, when this review was due, I wondered. As I couldnít get tickets to Ragtime for less than $71.00. How would it be to see Ragtime again? Would I have a thought provoking profound theatre experience, or would I be bored? Looking back at the events in life preceding the show, profundity seemed to abound. The song "Rags" is lingering in my mind and before leaving for the show I had the wonderful feeling of being finished writing a song that I know is really good. So I was in a creative, thoughtful mode on this night of Ragtime. I was also a bit anxious knowing that there was a possible MTA strike at midnight and I was just hoping that I could get home before then. In the forefront of mind though were some questions that popped up when I was mentally recalling the show. Will I tonight, be captivated by the immigrant Jews? Will I sympathize for the Blacksí struggles as Coalhouse sings to his dead wife? Will I loathe Father and the America he stands for or root for revolution? Hours will tell.
I remember the first time I saw Ragtime, it was my freshman year in college and Ragtime and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts were both just starting up, Livent was not yet bankrupt and the original cast was in tact. This time around at the Tuesday night performance on December 14th, 8:00 p.m. and Ragtime is fading, with a scheduled closing in January 2000 due to high running costs. Before the doors to the theatre opened I found myself standing on the upper level thinking of history and looking down at the pristine gold-lamay lobby. The show, like the theatre that holds it is like its Roman columns, can best be described as epic. Ragtime is an epic undertaking of United States History in a time of revolution, uprising, and change. Just like the Romans, their columns, and their Empire Ragtime is bankrupt and closing in a few weeks.
To understand fully all the points that I intend to cover it will help if the complicated plot is briefly summarized. Ragtimeís music is written by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrance McNally. Ragtime is based on a book of the same name written in 1974 by NYU faculty member E.L. Doctorow. His masterpiece, although fiction, is an all too real illustration of America at a great turning point in history. The musical focuses on the tales of three groups of people: the White upper class, the Negroes, and the Immigrants. The White upper class is represented by a single family in New Rochelle, NJ. Mother, who wants to be provided for (Donna Bullock), Father, who got his money from fireworks (Joseph Dellger), Motherís Younger Brother, a revolutionary in his own right (Scott Carollo), Grandfather (Tom Toner), and the Little Boy (Anthony Blair Hall). Their family and race are experiencing growing pains. The troubles really begin with them when Father leaves for an expedition for the North Pole with Admiral Perry and leaves his family to fend for themselves for a year. In that time Mother is working in the garden and finds a newborn Negro baby. The baby belongs to Sarah (Darlesia Cearcy) and Coalhouse (Alton Fitzgerald White), the main black characters. Mother takes both Sara and the baby into their home and takes care of them. The immigrants are represented by Tateh (Michael Rupert) and The Little Girl (Elizabeth Lundberg), as well as anarchist Emma Goldman (Judy Kaye) and illusionist Harry Houdini (Bernie Yvon). The main plot really begins after Sarah agrees to marry Coalhouse and they are driving his new Model-T down the road and they are stopped by a group of bigot Irish firemen and their leader Will Conklin who tells him he has to pay a toll so Coalhouse goes to the police and while heís gone, they demolish his car and roll it into a lake. Coalhouse vows justice. Complicated by the death of Sarah his vengeance takes face as he takes over the J.P. Morgan library and threatens to blow it up. After his companions are safely away Coalhouse comes out, hands raised in submission and it shot and killed. That encompasses the main plot and not nearly everything but a summary is difficult with such a layered story.
As the show begins there is onstage a giant viewfinder that the little boy will pick up and use as a metaphor of looking to the future throughout. The Little Boy serves as a narrator throught the story, telling all the characters what they need to know to help them be a better part of the story. As the lights come down to black the viewfinder raises and a barren stage is left a blank page on which the characters and actors may not paint into the lavish tapestry that is America. In this long and complicated opening number that explains every emotion leading up to the action of the play starts when A door opens, and in comes white light, the white light of the upper class. The next change is a burst of colors and energy, the Negroes emerge with their ragtime and pride in tote. Finally the Immigrants come out all dressed in rags and looking tattered. After probably 30 minutes or so, the opening number is competed and (almost) all the major characters are introduced. The story is so complicated and uses so many people, there are no more efficient ways of doing it. Also introduced in this opening bit are the characters of Evelyn Nesbit (Michele Ragusa), Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington (Tommy Hollis), Henry Ford (Larry Daggett), Emma Goldman, Harry K Thaw and Stanford White, among others. I talked earlier about the musical being mainly about change, these characters are the oneís that show that to the audience.
Evelyn Nesbit was thrust into the limelight when she was "victimized at 15" by the architect Stanford White, a.k.a. designed Penn Station. This becomes important because later she marries the eccentric millionaire Harry K. Thaw who murders White. People call it "The crime of the century," and itís only 1906. So, Nesbit rides the publicity and becomes a vaudeville star as "The girl on the swing." She sings the song explaining the whole situation in full vaudevillesque splendor with outlandish costumes, bright lights and corny "Weeeeeeeeee" routine. Later we see her fame diminish as people forget the murder and move to Atlantic City to play four shows a day. Nesbitís character in the story serves the audience as a representative of vaudeville so we can see the struggles, changes, and ultimate death of Vaudeville that occurred there over this time period as well.
Along with Nesbit showcasing vaudeville, there was also Harry Houdini. The consummate immigrant, always escaping. Serving as a beacon to struggling immigrants to overcome obstacles which in the end, not even he could overcome. Neither does anyone overcome their struggles, but with the exception of Sarah and Coalhouse, they do survive.
Having already seen the production once and having a pretty good take on it made this viewing very interesting to me. I still firmly believe that itís too long and I found myself looking for tings that were unnecessary or repetitive but couldnít find much of anything. Iíve never been a fan of either "Buffalo NickelÖ" or "What a Game" and always thought they were unnecessary. I still think "Buffalo Nickel" is pointless but "What a Game" actually has something to say. Itís another illustration of the changing times in which Father finds himself. He wishes to get away from everything at home by going to a civilized, proper baseball game, only to get there and find the fans shouting, swearing, and spitting. It makes it point.
So do the production elements of costumes, scenery, lights, choreography, and audio. The costumes were very different for the different groups of people obviously. The upper class was dressed entirely in white. They carried parasols and wore skimmers. The Negroes were dressed more colorfully (and lit more colorfully) as the danced primitive dances and hooted and hollered. The immigrants looked like they were a part of a death march that got lost and ended up in America. They looked battered and beaten, poor and hungry. There was no dancing from them, refined or otherwise. The scenery was very complicated and I can imagine where a lot of the money for the production went. They moved in and out effortlessly on tracks in the stage that I could see plainly because of how high up I was. One of the interesting set pieces that were used numerous times was the backdrop. The backdrop was used for everything from depicting long sunsets, to setting off a flare from a far off ship, or painting Tatehís silhouettes in the background Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (the lighting directors) should be commended if for nothing else but making the stage wood colored so the lights seem so brilliant. The musical staging was provided by Graciela Daniele and had to be challenging with so many people in so many different roles in the show.
Ragtime is a very important piece in the evolution of Broadway today. First because of the renovation on 42nd St. from a sleazy porn Mecca to Disneyville USA. Although I think the Disneyifacation of the wold is deplorable, it does make Times Square a safer place and more accessible to tourists. Ragtime has that Disney feel to it, not Mickey Disney though, a rougher Disney, Cradle Will Rock Disney. It has an edge to it inherently and the story is so good that it reaches so many people. It is a shame though that Ragtime will probably end up being important to Broadway by showing you canít pull off such an ambitious show without going bankrupt or being put in jail.
In general as a production I found Ragtime to be in good shape. I didnít necessarily care for all the performances, but they were adequate. I felt like some of the leads, namely Mother and Motherís Younger Brother were listening to themselves too much and not acting through their songs enough. I think the voices were over miced because no oneís voice "spoke" they were all good voices but lacking in presence. It was long though. I got out of there about 11:00 (even with a 20 minute intermission) but as Scott Joplin himself said, "Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast."