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There’s no denying Ragtime’s stagecraft, and anyway, who’d want to? The musical is state-of-the-art and intent on being mesmerizing from the moment the house lights go down and a little boy picks up a stereopticon at center stage. As he fiddles with its focusing device, two enormous black-and-white family portraits materialize behind him. The instant he places the device to his eyes, the photos merge into a single image that dissolves seamlessly into three-dimensional actors with parasols.
We’re now about 10 seconds in, and already the pulsating title number has begun to assert itself, with Graciela Daniele’s choreography transforming its insistent throb into a decorous cakewalk from which individual characters step forward to introduce themselves: Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfatherall white, all dressed in white, all bathed in white light. Then, a distant corner of the stage glows red, and a spicier, louder, more sinuous African-American contingent arrives. And no sooner have they established themselves onstage than a wash of blue light announces a cadre of picturesquely shabby immigrant-Americans, moving to still another, somewhat more urgent beat.
And abruptly, this red, white, and blue stage incarnation of novelist E.L. Doctorow’s picture-postcard America is infused with tension. As the ragtime pulse turns martial, the pale, blond boy with the stereopticon somehow gets separated from his middle-class family. And as he cowers at center stage, perhaps seven minutes into the evening, with the full ferment of American diversity circa 1906 swirling around him, the audience can pretty much grasp the themes that will consume the show’s actors for the next three hours. Disparate traditions, hopes, and fears, as well as familial, cultural, and class dissonances, have all been laid out vividly and with pulse-quickening panache.
And that’s just for starters. Frank Galati’s staging piles on dozens of startling, era-conjuring images: a tycoon riding a stagewide bridge as it descends to crush a mob of have-nots, a glistening, fresh-off-the-assembly-line Model T, a spotlighted floozy on a swing, an immigrant horde confronting barricades in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. There are soon so many stage-savvy historical panoramas so cleverly realized that no viewer, no matter how jaded, will be able to help marveling at the resources and spectacular craft that are being brought to bear on one evening’s entertainment.
Moreover, there’s nothing haphazard about all this razzle-dazzle. Does that floozy on a swing seem merely decorative? Wait a scene or three, and she’ll inspire the anarchist who aids the Model T-owning revolutionary in taking on the tycoon. Everything ties together, with each stage device moving the action forward and every effect landing perfectly. The staging couldn’t get any more fluid without flowing right into the orchestra pit. Put simply, Ragtime looks fabulous, sounds glorious, and moves like clockwork as it tells of sacrifice and tragedy, stubbornness and honor, frustrated ambitions and dashed hopes. The tarnishing of the American Dream has seldom been evoked with such anthemic grace and fervor.
Now, ask me if I was moved.
I was not. Not a bit, though I was frequently impressed, nearly always engrossed, and, in a general sense, entertained. Ragtime qualifies as a knockout on nearly every level, from the caliber of its performances to the creative flourishes designed to enhance those performances, but for all its pyrotechnics, it’s a chilly affair at heart.
Partly that’s because two of its three main characters are saints, and it’s hard to get emotionally involved in the tribulations of saints. Partly it’s because the show’s production style is self-consciously presentational, with characters nearly always facing the audience rather than each other even while singing duets. And partly it’s because the creators have so carefully calibrated every moment of their extravaganza that there’s barely room left for actual life to assert itself. When, at one point on opening night, a toy wagon that had been left unattended on the steeply raked stage began to roll downhill toward a midstage flower patch into which it pitched and nearly turned over, you could feel that something “live” was happeningand that it was different from most of what was going on onstage.
Actress Rebecca Eichenberger, who plays Mother (as in the novel, the story’s central clan is iconic, with members identified only by their familial relationships), righted the wagon a moment later with the same pragmatic practicality with which she would soon decide that an African-American baby found in that same flower patch should be brought into her home. That action leads to all the plot’s other complications, most of which involve the baby’s father, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Alton Fitzgerald White), an appealingly forthright musician whose dreams for his family are going to be thwarted by American racism at its ugliest.
Meanwhile, another fathera penniless Jewish immigrant named Tateh (Michael Rupert)is struggling to feed his daughter and having only marginally better luck with the American Dream. In the middle of Act 2, Tateh’s fortunes will take a turn for the better, but by then, Ragtime’s story will almost entirely have become Coalhouse’s story, assuming a somber darkness in the process.
The second act gets just as tied up in plot as does Doctorow’s novelwhich is a problem. So is the fact that composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens give their characters at least three too many emotion-articulating anthems in the evening’s final stages. The score is otherwise tuneful enough, with the title rag and Coalhouse’s “Gettin’ Ready Rag” clear standouts among numbers that could serve just as well in other shows. The score isn’t exactly derivative, but many of its songs seem designed to deliver kicks that other musicals have already delivered. The stardom-by-scandal number, for instance, might have been lifted from Chicago; the baseball-expectoration number would be right at home in Damn Yankees; there are staging echoes of Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, Me and My Girl, and even Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha.
None of which diminishes the effectiveness of the current numbers; it just means that folks who go to a lot of musicals are going to find this one something less than groundbreaking. Fortunately, even on those occasions when a song is going nowhere fast, it’s generally pushed to a big finish by either William David Brohn’s orchestrations or Daniele’s powerhouse choreography.
What the staging can’t do, though, is eliminate the one drama-stymieing stumbling block inherent in the original material: the fact that Mother and Tateh aren’t just on the side of the angels, they are angels. Mother, particularly, seems incapable of an emotional or ethical misstepwhich renders her almost entirely uninteresting after a while. Eichenberger makes her plausible, warm, and full-voiced, but despite her best efforts, your attention will quickly wander to the character’s priggish husband (nicely underplayed by Cris Groenendaal) and her impetuous, munitions-savvy brother (Aloysius Gigl). They’ve got life; Mother’s just good.
Rupert’s feverish Tateh suffers from a similar blandness after a while, though he at least starts out with a temper. Next to these two paragons of virtue, Coalhouse comes across as a regular Hamletwhich is not to suggest that the character is actually complex. He’s just two conflicting stereotypessweet-natured musician and hot-headed firebranda fact that White’s sharp, insinuating performance does much to camouflage. Darlesia Cearcy is ever so slightly shrill in her big number as Coalhouse’s love interest, but ravishing enough that you can understand how he’d be so obsessed by her as to turn the world upside down.
A few of the performers playing the evening’s historical characters make reasonably strong impressions. Bernie Yvon’s Harry Houdini has a niftily theatrical escape sequence at the top of the second act, Theresa Tova’s union-backing Emma Goldman is persuasively strident in her defense of the working classes, and if Melissa Dye makes scandal-plagued chorine Evelyn Nesbit little more than a squeak with legs, well…that’s how librettist Terrence McNally wrote her.
The energy on stage is remarkable for a touring company, perhaps because this troupe has been whipped into shape by Galati a mere three months after the show’s Broadway opening and is making its national debut here in D.C. On opening night, there wasn’t a tired-looking head snap all evening, nor a high kick that was so much as a degree out of alignment. At the curtain call, the cast seemed as excited by the way the show had gone over as the most enthusiastic member of the audience.
They were aided every step of the way by Eugene Lee’s production design, which is as restless as it is sumptuous, with railings, bridges, and giant postcards rising, falling, or sliding practically every minute. And with most of the evening’s secondary figures popping on- and offstage after three or fewer lines of dialogue, Santo Loquasto’s textured, character-establishing costumes are also a godsend. All of which makes Ragtime a feast for the eyes and ears, if not for the heart.CP