Saturday, September 8, 2012

Play that Ragtime

Although I don't think Ragtime is a great musical, you couldn't find a better production that the one playing now through October 14 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, directed by the festival's artistic director, Jackie Maxwell.

The festival, currently celebrating its 50th year, began by focusing on the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, then expanded to include contemporary works set within the timespan of Shaw's life. Good thing he lived to age 94 (1856-1950)!

Ragtime, set in the first decade of the 20th century and based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, premiered in Toronto in 1996 under the banner of producer Garth Drabinsky's Live Entertainment Company. I remember interviewing Drabinsky for a story in the Wall Street Journal, where I was a staff reporter at the time. It was at rehearsal and Brian Stokes Mitchell was onstage. "He's going to be a major star," I remarked and Drabinsky replied, "Yes, and I've got him."

Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime at the Shaw Festival
Not only did Stokes Mitchell create a huge impression, but so did Audra McDonald and Marin Mazzie. The production even featured a ten-year-old Lea Michele, later to star in Glee.

Doctorow - and the show - set out to create a sweeping sense of American life at the start of a turbulent era.

Fictional characters included a white family in the New York suburb of New Rochelle; a Harlem ragtime piano player and a Jewish immigrant. Historical figures also crowded the action - Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman.

That's been my problem with this show. It's always felt like a preachy history lesson where the human stories are presented in frames - "now look at this" - rather than developing organically. However, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' music and lyrics find the passion and beauty of the stories: the New Rochelle family's Mother (as she is called) finds an abandoned baby and takes in him and his desperate mother, a black woman named Sarah; the baby's father is a ragtime pianist named Coalhouse Walker who eventually seeks justice through violence; and the immigrant, Tateh, tries to survive the poverty of the Lower East Side and make a better life for his daughter.

The dazzling score, featuring such wonderful melodies as "Ragtime," and "Wheels of a Dream," receives heartfelt interpretations from the magnetic Thom Allison as Coalhouse, sensitive Patty Jamieson as Mother, Jay Turvey as optimistic Tateh, stalwart Benedict Campbell as Father. Alana Hibbert as Sarah can't quite match the vocal power of McDonald (and it's probably not fair to compare anyone to McDonald), but brought out a fragile quality in the character.
Thom Allison (right) and the ensemble in Ragtime
Special mention should also go to featured player Nichola Lawrence who has an electrifying bluesy turn in the role of Sarah's Friend.

Sue LePage's scaffold-like set provides number of satisfying levels as Morgan, Ford, Goldman and Booker T. Washington all need to declaim at some point. Alan Brodie's lighting design, coupled with Ben Chiasson's and Beth Kates' projections (one that really impressed me was an impressionistic video of life in the tenements), really lift the show into heaven.

Maxwell's staging is so interesting - such as two wheeled frames representing ships, one of which is carrying Father to explore the North Pole with Admiral Peary - and the cast performs with such consistent style. But Ragtime, at two hours, 45 minutes, has always been too long. For instance, the song "What A Game" (about baseball) doesn't move the action forward and could be dropped. However, as I was thinking those thoughts during the song, I was simultaneously enjoying Campbell trying to tell his son about the game while shielding him from the raucous elements in the crowd.

I'm glad to see that Ragtime is a hit for Shaw, which hasn't done many musicals, as this luminous production certainly deserves to be one.

A couple of personal notes: in 1996, long before I came to live in Mamaroneck, N.Y., just a few miles north of New Rochelle, I took no notice of a line in the show spoken by a train conductor: "All aboard for Mamaroneck!" This time, it produced a moment of delight for me and my companion, teacher and director Ron Cameron-Lewis, a visitor to Mamaroneck this year.

A friend in the cast, Stewart Adam McKensy, continues to be one of the most talented tap dancers, singers and actors I've seen and ably anchors the ensemble (that's him in the center of the photo above). The Shaw audience will really appreciate Stewart's talents when he performs as Coalhouse for several shows this fall. Break legs, Stewart.      

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