Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, October 2006
Ragtime is an amazing musical. You may never have heard of it or may have glanced at the title and dismissed it as one more revue-sical of historic music, but trust me, it is one of the great musicals of the 20th century and one you MUST see in its current incarnation at the Cohoes Music Hall.
The show is based on E.L. Doctorow’s award-winning 1975 novel of the same name, but while Doctorow hates the 1981 film adaptation, he loves this 1998 stage version, which is really more of an operetta than a musical, with a book by Terrance McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Aherns. The creators had to “audition” for Doctorow in order to earn the rights to adapt his work for the stage.
Doctorow claims that he did not name his novel, which is set, as is the show, somewhere between 1902 and 1915, for the musical style of the day, but because he perceived that he had woven the story out of “rags” - shreds and scraps of fiction and history “plucked from the rag bin” of his mind. Indeed the plot of Ragtime is so tightly woven that I am going to be careful in this review to reveal as little of it as possible because I could definitely spoil your experience if I reveal exactly how the rags come together to form whole cloth.
The story Ragtime tells is sweeping, encompassing three fictional families – one white, one black, and one Jewish immigrant – as their lives graze those of historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini. As in Doctorow’s novel, very few of the fictional characters have names. The members of the white family are known simply as Father, Mother, Grandfather, Younger Brother, and the Boy, although McNally tickled Doctorow’s fancy by giving the Boy the author’s name, Edgar, in the show. This is a play about America and Americans at a time of ethnic confluence.
The word “confluence” sprang to my mind immediately as I observed the staging by Jim Charles and choreography by Jessica Costa of the show’s opening number. The actors representing the three ethnic groups surged upstage and downstage, stage left and stage right – almost touching, nearly mingling, only to move apart again. The city of Cohoes sits at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, where waters from different sources meet for the first time. This meeting is not without turbulence, but together the two rivers are stronger than they are before they converge. Ragtime tells the story of the turbulent meeting of different streams of humanity in this country a hundred years ago. We sit a little further downstream, knowing that the result is a stronger, more complete nation, but that new streams keep joining the flow and that we still have many miles to go.
Those are great, big words, and Ragtime is a great, big show. C-R Productions is brave to attempt it on the small stage of the Cohoes Music Hall. Charles has fielded a cast of thirty-seven, ranging from Equity pros to local high school and college students, and, as the show requires, three children. Fitting them and the three-story set designed by Scott Aronow on to the stage is a feat, and one that Charles and Costa manage splendidly. There sometimes isn’t an inch to spare, but the stage never looks over-crowded. Costa’s choreography is lively, professional, and appropriate to the mood of the show. The whole production embodies nothing less than the excellence audiences have come to expect at Cohoes.
The leads – Beth Thompson as Mother, Jerry Christakos as the immigrant Tateh (a Russian word for Father), Erin Willis as Sarah, Steven C. Rich as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and Richard Gatta as Mother’s Younger Brother – are all excellent. Sarah and Coalhouse are monumental roles, and Rich brings every ounce of his strength and talent to bear, while Willis falls a tiny bit short of perfection. I never fully felt Sarah’s passion and pain. Thompson plays the complex role of Mother quietly, and she is matched well by Shawn Morgan in the thoroughly unsympathetic role of Father. It is Mother’s personal transformation that pushes the plot forward, and Thompson makes her journey believable. She looks lovely and sings very nicely.
Garrett McClenahan looks like he’s have the time of his life playing young Edgar. I enjoyed watching him belt out the songs along with the adult cast members. Jamie Young as Tateh’s little girl has far fewer lines, but plays her role with an initial wide-eyed honesty that morphs into mischievous glee as her character gains safety, confidence, and social standing.
Jeannie Shubitz plays the notorious Evelyn Nesbit, the Anna Nicole Smith of her day (think wealthy, elderly millionaires and dramatic court battles.) Flaherty wrote the music for Nesbit in the high key in which showgirls of that era sang, and Shubitz, an operatically trained singer, handles the vocal demands with aplomb while wedged into a corset so tight that it seemed impossible for her to breathe, let alone to sing.
While Shubitz bears a passing resemblance to Nesbit’s striking beauty, the rest of the actors cast as historic figures represent them in name only. That is not to say that Sean Quinn as Houdini, Jeffrey P. Hocking as Morgan, John Baker as Ford, Maurice Morgan as Washington, and Jenna Cramer as Goldman don’t give lively and professional performances, but if you hold their headshots up to photos of the real people they are portraying, the resemblance isn’t there.
I was impressed with Michael Lotano’s handling of the role of Fire Chief Willie Conklin, an Irish-American whose insistence that the blacks should suffer the same harassment as his people did when they first strove to break into mainstream society topples the plot from mere social commentary into deep human tragedy. I wish that Lotano and Charles had done more to bring out Conklin’s ethnic heritage so that the motive for his anger was clearer. But Lotano played Conklin as a man convinced of his rights, rather than letting him slide into merely villainy.
Cohoes has made its name of late with big happy-slappy musicals to which you can safely take the whole family. Ragtime does not fall into that tap-dancing family-friendly mold. In fact it is not a “musical comedy” at all but something closer to grand opera in its construction – it is almost completely sung through – and the storyline for the black family is a tragic one as they struggle, and fail, to find dignity and justice. I am not telling you this to discourage you from buying tickets, or from not taking your middle- and high-school-aged children. There are many light and delightful moments in Ragtime and it brings an important slice of American history powerfully to life. The ending is hopeful and upbeat, but the act one finale is a heart-wrenching funeral scene in which Barbara Howard, as a character called simply Sarah’s Friend, brings down the house with her powerful solo line in the gospel number Till We Reach That Day.
Speaking of music, while Flaherty and Ahrens score lacks a blockbuster hit, every number is tuneful and moving. Flaherty has used period musical motifs in modern ways, and weaves the melody of the title number throughout the show to give texture and definition to different characters. Musical Director Michael McAssey conducts a lively pit orchestra of seven, but it is Assistant Musical Director Adams Jones on the ragtime piano who is the instrumental star of this show. Charles and Rich have done a good job making it believable that Rich as Coalhouse is playing the piano onstage, but it is Jones in the pit who is tickling those ivories.
Aronow’s set is suggestive rather than representational, and is of necessity pared down in order to leave as much stage space available as possible. But its open austerity and multi-levels allow Charles to position his players in ways that make effective statements about class and status. Justin Partier achieves some almost cinematic effects with his lighting. And Khryn Diotte has done a splendid job costuming the large cast. I am sure she did not have a million dollar budget to work with, but the costumes all look like a million nonetheless.
In the recent brouhaha concerning the current state of affairs at the Williamstown Theatre Festival I weighed in with a letter to the editor of The Advocate saying that that company’s major problem was its failure to connect with the local community. A great many things that I have heard and seen of late lead me to believe that community connections are a key component to the success of any arts organization, especially when it comes to the role they play in the local economy.
C-R Productions at the Cohoes Music Hall has done an outstanding job of connecting with their community. The cast of Ragtime is a shining example of how a theatre can involve community members to create top-notch theatre. That inclusiveness feeds on itself as having community members on the stage attracts their friends and relations who live in the area who in turn bring their friends and relations…The Cohoes Music Hall has clearly become a place where area residents feel welcome and included. Charles and his partner Tony Rivera have brought a wonderful positive energy to the Music Hall which can only bring more good things to downtown Cohoes.
Ragtime, presented by C-R Productions, runs weekends through November 12 at the Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen Street in Cohoes. The show runs two hours and fifty minutes with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-237-5858 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006