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.

We preview the Shaw Festival’s 2012 season

Shaw

The Shaw Festival’s anniversary season had three Bernard Shaw plays, plus My Fair Lady, but in 2012 the playbill will be back down to two.  Neither Misalliance nor The Millionairess is a major work, and The Millionairess won’t start up till late June. Last fall the Shaw Festival hosted a two-day forum on the “relevance” of Shaw, and everyone agreed solemnly that his plays are still very, very important. But even if the Shaw Festival sticks with its custom of putting on two Shaw plays every season, it seems clear that Shaw won’t necessarily be front and center in any given season anymore.

We do get it. Personally, we look forward to the Shaw plays, but some people who go to Niagara-on-the-Lake for theater avoid them like the plague.  Shaw isn’t like Shakespeare; he simply doesn’t have hard-core fans. According to a recent Shaw Festival press release, only 65,000 of the 274,800 tickets sold at the Shaw Festival in 2011 were for Shaw plays. The management brags that this is up from 50,000 and 52,500 for Shaw plays in 2009 and 2010, but that really doesn’t say much; it’s not surprising that three plays sold more tickets than two.

Emsworth is stoked about the lineup for 2012, despite what has become an annual disappointment: the Festival is still shying away from Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. Our earlier experiences with William Inge (in 2005), Githa Sowerby (in 2004 and 2008), and Terence Rattigan (also in 2008) left us wanting more of their plays, and in the 2012 season we get all three.  It’s rude to say it, but we find the Shaw Festival’s lineup for 2012 considerably more attractive top-to-bottom than the one at Stratford, which has only three Shakespeare plays and includes such head-scratchers as You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and a Homer Simpson version of Macbeth.

Here’s what we think of the 2012 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge).  Bach in 2004, Emsworth and wife found the Shaw Festival production of William Inge’s Bus Stop so appealing that we saw it twice.  That show, a sexually charged story of folks stranded during a blizzard at a bus stop in the middle of Kansas, was directed by Jackie Maxwell, who will now direct Inge’s first successful play, Come Back, Little Sheba.

There’s likely to be plenty of middle-America passion in this show too, with regrets and recriminations. The protagonists are a midwestern chiropractor and the former beauty queen he had to marry twenty years earlier; their lives change when they take a college student into their home as a boarder. Corrine Kozlo and Ric Reid will play the lead roles.

Michael Ball

2. French Without Tears (Terence Rattigan).  French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first successful play. It’s a light comedy whose tone will surely be very different from the witty but sobering After the Dance, which we saw at the Shaw Festival in 2008. 

We were dazzled by After the Dance, our first Rattigan play (see this Emsworth post), and since then we’ve gone out of our way to dig deeper.  We’ve found and devoured copies of his plays The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and After the Dance, all of which are notable for their elegant construction, brilliant, subtle characterizations, and economical dialogue. We’ve also seen several movies based on Rattigan’s plays — he did a lot of screenwriting — including Separate Tables and The Browning Version (the classic 60-year-old British film versions), both of which we now rank among our very favorite movies, The Winslow Boy (again the original version), and The Prince and the Showgirl, with Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, as well as The V.I.P.s, for which he wrote the screenplay.

All this reading and movie-watching has made Emsworth a serious fan of Terence Rattigan, and now we understand why Jackie Maxwell apparently thinks his plays worthy of being in rotation at the Shaw Festival along with Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noël Coward.  There were, incidentally, revivals of a couple of Rattigan plays in the London theaters this last year — perhaps Ms. Maxwell is simply riding the wave. We’re pleased to see that Michael Ball, still one of our favorite Shaw Festival actors, will have a leading role in French Without Tears .

3. Misalliance (Bernard Shaw). By the time Shaw wrote Misalliance in 1909, his plays were beginning to rely less on believable plots and action and more on learned chatter — so much so that in Misalliance the characters themselves gripe about all the talking and preaching!  Poking a little fun at himself, probably, Shaw has Johnny Tarleton complain to his father about didactic novels:

I’ll bet what you like that I read more than you, though I don’t talk about it so much. Only, I don’t read the same books. I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing his own tail. I can stand a little of it, but a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing.

At the play’s end, Johnny’s father finally mumbles, “Well, I — er — well, I suppose — er — I suppose there’s nothing more to be said.” His daughter’s reaction:

Hypatia [fervently] Thank goodness!

Misalliance has a lot of the same proto-absurdist elements as Heartbreak House, which Shaw wrote about eight years later. (See this post for a catalog of Emsworth’s grievances with Heartbreak House, which we saw again at the Shaw Festival this last summer.) In each play, residents and guests at a country house are menaced by aircraft, and in each an intruder bursts into their midst who — surprise — turns out to be part of someone’s past.  In each play characters are intensely attracted to one another on five minutes’ acquaintance, and in each an old coot falls for a young woman.

But there is still a lot of snappy stuff in Misalliance, and we’re genuinely looking forward to it. Wade Bogert-O’Brien, a young actor whom we liked very well in last year’s Candida, will play the adventurous aviator Joey Percival. It’s not a lengthy play, as Shaw plays go.

4. Hedda Gabler (Henrik Ibsen). We continue to be dismayed that some of our favorite Shaw Festival performers, like Ben Carlson, Kelli Fox, Evan Buliung, and Deborah Hay, have migrated over to Stratford in the last several years. Even Christopher Newton, the Festival’s former Artistic Director, will be directing Shakespeare there in 2012. But one of the finest performers in the history of either company, Martha Henry, is coming to the Shaw Festival in 2012 to direct Hedda Gabler.

We’ve been trying to cultivate an appreciation for Ibsen, and for Netflix subscribers we can heartily recommend a 1973 film version of A Doll’s House starring Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Richardson that we saw just a couple of weeks ago. For all its enormous reputation we don’t know Hedda Gabler, which is about the hijinks of a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage. Moya O’Connell, Patrick McManus, and Gray Powell will make up the play’s love triangle. This is just the sort of play that belongs in the Courthouse Theatre, where it will be staged.

In the work of Ibsen, said Emma Goldman, “lay all the instruments for the radical dissection of society.” Or, at least, that’s what E. L. Doctorov said she said in his novel Ragtime. (Doctorov probably didn’t entirely make this up; see this Goldman essay on Ibsen.) On the other hand, H. L. Mencken, a scribe whose judgment we generally respect, insisted that Ibsen was no “tin-pot radical” at all. According to Mencken, Ibsen “believed in all the things that the normal, law-abiding citizen of Christendom believes in, from democracy to romantic love, and from the obligations of duty to the value of virtue, and he always gave them the best of it in his plays.” We wonder which view of Ibsen Martha Henry’s direction will take.

5. Ragtime (musical based on the novel). Ragtime seemed to us the best of the E. L. Doctorov novels that we read, but we could never figure out how they could make a musical out of it, especially one that is almost entirely musical numbers and hardly any dialogue, like an opera.

The book includes more characters and subplots than could possibly be fit into a musical play. But Les Miserables was a much bigger book, and they made the best musical in 40 years out of it. We will soon find out. Thom Allison will play Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black piano player driven to extremes by racial oppression.  Emsworth himself has happily played much of Scott Joplin on the piano for years and hopes there will be plenty of ragtime music in this show.

6. His Girl Friday (Suzan-Lori Parks). This play’s title will be familiar to any fan of Hollywood screwball comedies, but the 1940 movie was adapted from a 1928 play called The Front Page. The play at the Shaw Festival in 2012 is an adaptation of both, done by the playwright John Guare (best known for Six Degrees of Separation) in 2003.  It’ll be closer to the movie than the play.

The Shaw Festival has hit big and missed big on classic American comedies. The hits include a couple of funniest things we’ve ever seen on stage, You Can’t Take It With You (1998 and 1999) and Born Yesterday (2009), but the misses include a disappointing The Women (2010) (see this post) and a sour, unfunny Three Men on a Horse (2004). The announcement that Benedict Campbell and Nicole Underhay will play the “Cary Grant” and “Rosalind Russell” roles, respectively, in His Girl Friday gives us reason to hope for this show. Jim Mezon is directing; it’s disappointing that he seems to be appearing as an actor in only one play in 2012 (a supporting role in Hedda Gabler).

Coward

7. Present Laughter (Noël Coward). Three years after a Shaw Festival season that included four Noël Coward shows, Coward is back. Garry Essendine, an actor in light comedies who is the lead character in this 1939 play, is a lot like Coward himself; several other characters are thought to have been based on some of his close friends and lovers. Steven Sutcliffe will play Garry Essendine.

8. A Man and Some Women (Githa Sowerby). Githa Sowerby is so obscure that she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. (We’re thinking of rectifying that.) But Jackie Maxwell has pulled her out of obscurity; the Sowerby play The Stepmother, which we saw in 2008, gave us a wonderful evening of entertainment (see this Emsworth post). We know nothing about this 1914 play of Sowerby’s — probably no one else does, either — except that it involves money conflicts in a family consisting of a man and two spinster sisters.

9. The Millionairess (Bernard Shaw). This Shaw play is near the end of our list, but not because we’re not interested in it. One reason is that we have a mild crush on Nicole Underhay, who will play Epifania Fitzfassenden, a rich girl forbidden by her father’s will from marrying unless her fiance can turn 150 pounds into 50,000 pounds within six months. Shaw was 80 years old when he wrote The Millionairess, which we think is the last play Shaw wrote that had any real entertainment value.

10. Trouble in Tahiti (Leonard Bernstein). The Shaw Festival’s one-hour-long lunchtime show in 2012 will be an opera! Leonard Bernstein’s songs tell the story of an American housewife and her white-collar husband. Like all the Shaw’s lunchtime shows, this one will be a great bargain at $32 per ticket. We thoroughly enjoyed Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Shaw Festival in 2008 and West Side Story at Stratford in 2009.

11. Helen’s Necklace (Carole Fréchette). In the new Studio Theatre space will be a play by French-Canadian playwright Carole Fréchette, presented in English. The story promises to be a modestly fantastical account of a woman who has lost a necklace in a city in the Middle East like Baghdad or Beirut. The lead role will be played by Tara Rosling, whom we remember as Eliza Doolitte in Pygmalion a few years back. This show runs for only a month and a half, starting in mid-July.