REVIEW WRITTEN BY DANGE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For Digital First Media
Terrence McNally’s stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel focuses on three families: a wealthy white couple known simply as Mother and Father, Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker and his lover Sarah, and the Latvian immigrant Tateh and his young daughter.
Each tries to carve out a piece of the elusive American dream in a society that is reluctant to embrace change. Their individual stories continually intersect and in doing so, explore an assortment of issues ranging from Race, women’s rights, the justice system, the dispersal of wealth, the rise of unions, the beginnings of pop culture, movie making, and the American Dream.
In a real sense, “Ragtime” shows how far we have come and yet how much we haven’t fixed.
It led the 1998 Tony Awards with 13 nominations, winning best book of a musical; best original musical score; best orchestrations; and best featured actress in a musical, but Disney’s “The Lion King” won as Best Musical.
The stunning score by Stephan Flaherty has a fine mixture of ragtime, vaudeville and early jazz together with lofty ballads, a touch of gospel, Eastern European Jewish flavors, a hint of Joplin and stirring anthems aptly moving the story along. Lynn Ahrens’ dynamic lyrics are meaningful and resonating.
The show created on Broadway to open the spanking-new Ford Center was a paean to the latest in theater technology, a sort of World’s Fair for the stage, that featured planes, trains, a full-size Model T and fireworks (to accompany the expression of love).
The sole producer of the original Broadway “Ragtime” was Livent, a megamusical factory based in Canada and run by the megamogul Garth Drabinsky, who created the second largest Broadway theater out of two smaller unused ones to house the show.
Opulent and sprawling, the show bankrupted the company that produced it and Drabinsky, accused of fraud, became a fugitive from justice (what backstage drama!).
This Bristol Riverside Theatre revival moves in every way, partly because it skillfully dispenses with the elaborate scene changes of the original Broadway production. The performances persuade, the invigorating choreography is period perfect, the costumes are amazing, the orchestration is marvelous and the leads in this show are unimprovable.
Masterfully directed by Keith Baker, “Ragtime” may stand as BRTs’ finest mainstream work ever, as accessible and satisfying as it is passionate and thoughtful. The show neither drags nor sags under its big themes. Anyone who cares about musical theater, or theater in general, should make a special effort to see this production.
The premise of “Ragtime” is this; three separate, but not so equal communities struggle to find their footing in an America that is on the brink of change. They may differ by gender, skin color, religion, and class but they are not without unifiers — love, human decency and, of course, the infectious syncopated melody of ragtime music.
At the core of the story, Mother (Leslie Becker), must grapple with the changing dynamic within her upper class family. Tateh (Michael Holmes) must learn how to both protect his daughter and achieve the American dream as a struggling artist and immigrant.
And Coalhouse Walker (Derrick Cobey), an African-American pianist, must somehow survive in a country in which racism is still the norm and the law. Coalhouse is transformed from gentlemanly musician to avenging revolutionary.
Their personal journeys, which intertwine in the course of the play, come alive as historic figures — including escape artist Harry Houdini, auto tycoon Henry Ford, educator Booker T. Washington, and infamous entertainer Evelyn Nesbit — offer diversion and perspective. There is no one hero — unless it is America in flux.
Jason Simms excellent interpretation of the play in scenic design is minimal, precise and effective. Relieved of its original excess, this “Ragtime” feels lighter, airier and accessible.
The set evokes the over-sized factories of the new assembly-line era using tall arching industrial girders under which a pair of functional rotating staircases offer different designs at different angles.
Deborah Constantine’s lighting beautifully washes the stage in color, from sharp shafts of yellow to gentle pink shadows that underscore the atmosphere and drama. Linda Stockton’s early 20th century dresses and suits are perfection. Adding to the immense enjoyment, Stephen Casey’s choreography is both fresh and inventive.
The score for Ragtime has a number of bold and deeply lyrical moments. I am happy to report that the fiendishly challenging and rarely pausing score (31 musical numbers) is played here with great verve, nuance, and sensitivity by an 11 piece orchestra under the direction of Ryan Touhey.
This cast is huge — count 35! And there are many solid gold winners here. Leslie Becker’s glowing, full-voiced portrayal of Mother is splendid and truly anchors the heart of the story.
In the swing-for-the-fences role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., Derrick Cobey has found his range in seductive vocals, yielding up a character of charisma, confidence and vitality.
As Sarah, Coalhouse’s forlorn girlfriend, Ciji Prosser’s delivery is poised and controlled and her performance of “Your Daddy’s Son” is electric.
Also turning in a stunning performance is Matt Leisy as the rebellious younger brother, who leaves the security of his class to join a righteous cause.
Michael Holmes is loveable and charming as Tateh, a Jewish immigrant and father with big dreams. Holmes embodies the character’s hopeful and often amusing spirit, delivering every line with zeal.
Also memorable is Sarah Gafgen as Emma Goldman. Her pugnacious delivery during “The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square” is a spot-on portrayal of the riot-inciting activist. David Edwards is also a standout as the impressive and vibrant father of the well-to-do clan.
On the down side, Chelsey Jean appears much too old for the sweet, young, conniving “girl on the swing” Evelyn Nesbit otherwise known as the “Harlot of Babylon.” And the young Edgar in this show lacks a certain conviction when delivering his lines.
“Ragtime” is a reminder that bewilderment, excitement, fear, and disorientation are the tumultuous tastes of new beginnings, but also a time-honored American tradition.
Despite the show’s enormous challenges, BRT more than does justice to this instant American classic with an ambitious, inventive and polished production. It shouldn’t be missed.
IF YOU GO
Where: The Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol.
When: Now through April 12.
Info.: Call (215) 785-0100 or check brtstage.org.