The musical Ragtime at the Shaw Festival

Thom Marriott as Coalhouse Walker, with his Model T

The risk-takers who run the Shaw Festival have revived the late 1990s musical Ragtime as the centerpiece of its 2012 season.  Emsworth’s is a divided verdict.  Ragtime is hardly one of the great musicals.  But the show at the Shaw Festival is a sharp-looking, great-sounding production with a full-sized Model T, a burlesque girl on a swing, slick dance numbers, fine singing, and crisp sound engineering.  It’s still worth the ticket.

Ragtime the musical is based on Ragtime the book, which is a 40-year-old novel by E. L. Doctorov that is set in the first couple of decades of the last century.  When I first read the novel in its bright red paperback edition as a teenager, it seemed an odd book with too many characters and storylines.  There were Father and Mother, with their fireworks business and their New Rochelle household; there was Younger Brother and his obsession with the scandal-celebrity singer Evelyn Nesbitt; there were the Jewish immigrant Tateh, the street artist who ends up inventing motion pictures, and his little girl; there were socialist meetings and a strike; and there was Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist who becomes obsessed with getting justice for an ugly assault on his Model T by racists, and his romance with his girl, Sarah.

Tateh (Jay Turvey) and his daughter

And there was a parade of seemingly randomly chosen historical figures whose lives crossed with the fictional characters: Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and J. P. Morgan.  The end of the novel leaves readers unsure whether some of the events in the novel were historically based or not — an effect the author surely intended. 

The lives of all these characters eventually intersected, like a Venn diagram, in ways that struck me (as a teenager) as contrived.  The characters themselves seemed only lightly sketched.  My idea of an American novel was something like An American Tragedy, Alice Adams, or The Last Hurrah; this was very different.

We didn’t see Ragtime when it was first on Broadway about 15 years ago, so I was surprised to find that the musical includes most of the novel’s many plots, subplots, and characters.  (By contrast, 42nd Street, the musical at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this summer, which we’ve seen and can warmly recommend, is devoted to a single, simple storyline.)  The songs of Ragtime naturally cut into the time for telling the story; unsurprisingly, the characterizations are even thinner than in the novel, and the story is even more condensed.  The narrative is told mostly in song and in in underscored monologues, as in “His Name was Coalhouse Walker.” 

Although the songs, as songs, leave much to be desired, the singing in this show is outstanding.  As Coalhouse Walker, Thom Allison is masterly, and he and Alana Hibbert, as Sarah, have rich, thrill-inducing voices that blend superbly in several duets.  Jay Turvey is a most convincing Tateh, and Kate Hennig is all that could be desired from an Emma Goldman.   (Goldman is the historical character who gets the most stage time; the truncating of the plot leaves you wondering exactly why there are appearances by Harry Houdini and Henry Ford).  I also enjoyed Aadin Church as Booker T. Washington.

Emsworth, who has played a good deal of ragtime piano himself, was disappointed to find that there wasn’t much real ragtime in Ragtime.  A tune called “Gettin’ Ready Rag” was a lot closer to 1920s jitterbug music than to the ragtime of Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb.  Only a handful of the 20 or so musical numbers in the show are in a style that can fairly be termed “ragtime,” including the lively “His Name was Coalhouse Walker,” “Crime of the Century,” and the slower “Sarah Brown Eyes.”

Coalhouse and Sarah

Instead, Ragtime is dominated by overwrought ballads in the soft-rock style of all too many forgettable musicals of the last 40 years.  The best of a forgettable lot is the cliché-ridden, over-orchestrated duet “Wheels of a Dream,” in which Coalhouse rhapsodizes about his hopes for his infant son’s future.  At the show we attended the performance of this song was warmly and justly applauded — but during intermission and after the show I didn’t hear anybody in the audience humming the tune, or any other of the show’s melodies either.  It is hardly surprising that none of the songs from the show ever become popular hits. There’s no “On the Street Where You Live,” “Till There Was You,” or “The Music of the Night” in Ragtime.

“Wheels of a Dream,” like several other musical numbers, does next to nothing to advance the musical’s storylines or themes.  And some of the lyrics could have been written by any reasonably bright third-grader, like these from the thoroughly unnecessary “Our Children” (a duet sung by Tateh (Jay Turvey) and Mother (Patty Jamieson)):

See them running down the beach
Children run so fast
Toward the future/From the past
How they dance/Unembarrassed and alone
Hearing music of their own/Our children

The tunes in Ragtime simply aren’t that memorable, and some of them, like “Your Daddy’s Son” and “Till We Reach That Day,”  are so generic that they they could have been transplanted with little or no tweaking into any number of recent Broadway musicals.  Fortunately, the quality of this production makes up for the weakness of the material.

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