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 2011 season

A year ago we were wondering whether the Shaw Festival management might be chafing a little at having to build its seasons around the plays of Bernard Shaw. The 2009 season was all about Noël Coward, and the Festival’s marketing for 2010 certainly didn’t lead with the two Shaw plays that were on the bill. In fact, the first Shaw play of 2010 didn’t even open until the end of June.

Shaw

But if the Shaw Festival is thinking about putting Shaw on the backburner, it’s not happening in 2011, because for its 50th season there will be an unprecedented four Shaw plays at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Personally, we’re not tired of Shaw yet. Here’s what we think of the 2011 Shaw Festival season, beginning with the shows we’re looking forward most.

1. The Admirable Crichton (James M. Barrie). Several months ago, when we offered a few suggestions for future Shaw Festival seasons (see this post), a play by J. M. Barrie was high on the list. It wasn’t The Admirable Crichton, but we’ll settle for this inventive comedy, which we’ve read but never seen (the Shaw Festival put it on back 1976, when Emsworth was still a student, unaware of theater festivals in Ontario).

J M Barrie

James M. Barrie

Like several Shaw plays (including Candida, also on the 2011 playbill), The Admirable Crichton involves the clumsy efforts of “advanced” English folk to live up to their socialist ideals. In this play, the Earl of Loam makes it a monthly practice to hold a dinner in which his household’s servants are treated like equals. The idealistic earl explains to Crichton, the butler: “Can’t you see, Crichton, that our divisions into classes are artificial, that if we were to return to Nature, which is the aspiration of my life, all would be equal?” Crichton, a clear-sighted conservative, does not agree: “The divisions into classes, my lord, are not artificial. They are the natural outcomes of a civilised society.”

Fantasies become reality in many of Barrie’s plays.  In The Admirable Crichton, the Earl’s household, servants and all, take a long voyage together and find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted Pacific island, where the Earl’s egalitarian theories are put to the test. In Bernard Shaw’s My Fair Lady (also on the 2011 playbill), a poor flower girl is taken out of her station life and transformed into a jewel of society; in Barrie’s play a butler is changed into a master, and a lord finds a station in life fitting his own natural ability.  Stephen Sutcliffe will play the butler, Crichton, and David Schurman will be the Earl of Loam.

2. My Fair Lady (Bernard Shaw, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe). We can’t imagine why they’ve never put on My Fair Lady at Niagara-on-the-Lake till now. Sure, it’s just an “adaptation” of Shaw’s play Pygmalion, but it uses a high percentage of Shaw’s original lines and sticks to the story. There was no good reason for the Shaw Festival to snub My Fair Lady for 49 years.

P. G. Wodehouse must have been suffering from indigestion, or gout, or kidney stones when he saw this show in the 1950s and told a friend it was “the dullest lousiest show” he’d ever seen.  This is our favorite musical play, if Showboat isn’t. We love its songs and have sung and played them all our life: “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Get Me to the Church On Time.” Deborah Hay, who so successfully played another girl from the slums a couple of years ago in Born Yesterday, will play Eliza Doolittle.  We particularly look forward to Benedict Campbell as Henry Higgins.  Little round man Neil Barclay, who is in fact an excellent song-and-dance man, will be Alfred Doolittle.

3. Candida (Bernard Shaw). This never-tedious comedy is among our favorite Shaw plays. Candida is the wife of James Morelle, a vicar and popular socialist speaker who serves a run-down parish in London. In the fundamentalist circles of Emsworth’s younger years, one sometimes heard of preachers who were “so heavenly minded” that they were “of no earthly good.” Morelle is the liberal analogue, so zealous for his causes that he doesn’t pay enough attention to the living, breathing people in his own circle, especially his wife. We give the radical socialist Shaw credit for being able to satirize someone like Morelle, a soldier on the front lines of the socialist campaign.

The plot of Candida revolves around the infatuation of young Eugene Marchbanks for Candida, who is 15 years his senior. In other productions of Candida that we’ve seen, Candida is portrayed as genuinely wavering between the young poet and her husband. This has never seemed right to us; we don’t think Candida ever seriously considers leaving James for the boy, and we don’t think the dramatic interest of the play requires it.

Gina Wilkinson was originally scheduled to direct Candida; sadly, she passed away in December 2010. Claire Jullien will play Candida.

4. Drama at Inish (Lennox Robinson). Several years ago we got a charge out of the Shaw Festival’s production of Seán O’Casey’s 1926 play The Plough and the Stars, even though we had trouble understanding the heavy Irish accents. Irish drama was something new for us, and we liked it.

We’ve been expecting more O’Casey but instead, in 2011, we’ll be getting a 1933 drama called Drama at Inish from one of O’Casey’s Irish contemporaries, Lennox Robinson. We dug around and found a copy of this comedy on-line and were greatly entertained by our reading of it. Jackie Maxwell herself, who we think is the best director at the Shaw Festival, will be directing. Two of our favorite Shaw Festival actresses, Mary Haney and Corrine Koslo, will have leading roles.

This is a play about actors and their audiences. Perhaps you remember a story — it might have been Mark Twain, maybe Bret Harte — in which some cowboys seeing their first play didn’t understand that the drama on stage wasn’t real, so they pulled out their pistols to shoot the stage villain. Drama at Inish similarly pokes fun at small-town theater-goers who confuse the real world and the gloomy on-stage worlds of Ibsen and Chekhov. (When this play initially came to Broadway, it was called “Is Life Worth Living.”)  

5. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams). This 1955 play is high on our list of all-time favorite plays. It will be only the second Tennessee Williams play to appear at the Shaw Festival (we enjoyed Summer and Smoke in 2007) and hope A Streetcar Named Desire won’t be far behind. We note, in passing, that, 10 years ago, before they relaxed “the Mandate,” the Shaw Festival probably wouldn’t have offered a play written after Shaw’s death in 1950.

This is the story of Brick and Maggie, a young couple whose childlessness is a sore point with Brick’s father, Big Daddy, a wealthy, domineering Southern planter who is dying of cancer. Maggie’s childless condition is due mainly to Brick’s puzzling lack of interest in his wife; does Brick simply despise her, or is he (like Tennessee Williams himself) simply not attracted to women?

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is full of delicious, unforgettable scenes and characters.  Moya O’Connell will play Maggie the Cat; Jim Mezon will play Big Daddy.  It seems that this will be Mr. Mezon’s only major role at the Shaw Festival in 2011; we’re a little disappointed that in the Festival’s 50th year, he’s not playing a lead role in a Bernard Shaw play. 

6. The President (Ferenc Molnár). This one-act comedy, starring Lorne Kennedy, was such a success as the one-hour lunchtime show at the Shaw Festival in 2008 that they’re bringing it back. We meant to see it then, but it never worked out, so we’re glad for this second chance.  This play too involves a “make-over”; a cabdriver with communist leanings must become someone suitable as the husband for the daughter of a soybean tycoon. Presumably most of the same cast will be back, although Chilina Kennedy, who played the daughter in 2008, is now a leading lady at the Stratford Festival. At $32, it’s a bargain.

The plot of The President, originally written in Hungarian in 1929, is thoroughly Wodehousian, and in fact there’s a connection: P. G. Wodehouse adapted one of Ferenc Molnár’s plays into the 1926-27 Broadway smash The Play’s the Thing, which we intend to re-read before heading off to see The President.

7. Topdog/Underdog (Suzan-Lori Parks). This 2001 play by Suzan-Lori Parks won the Pulitzer. It’s about two brothers (black men, but they actually are brothers) and their struggles to get by. They’re the only two characters in the play, which will play for only a short run (from July 19 through August 27) in the Shaw Festival’s new Studio Theater, which they reserve for “contemporary” plays. The Shaw’s track record in this space (John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 2009, Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money in 2010) is very good.

8. Heartbreak House (George Bernard Shaw). It’s one of Shaw’s greatest plays, according to all the experts, and who are we to argue? It includes some of our favorite Shaw characters, like old Captain Shotover, who treats his country house as if it were a sailing ship and pretends to be more senile than he really is. We consider the Captain a role model for our own declining years and are delighted to see that Michael Ball will take the role.  In fact, this show will have the Shaw Festival’s “A” case, with Robin Evan Willis, Deborah Hay, Patrick Galligan, and Patrick McManus as key cast members.

The first half of Heartbreak House, written during the first World War, is witty and entertaining; the second half turns deadly serious, and it’s all intensely metaphorical. In fact, we would go so far as to suggest that Shaw’s reputation for being “talky” owes more to Heartbreak House than to any other of his plays. Toward the end, the characters simply sit around the terrace engaged in intellectual duels that make you, in the audience, feel stupid because you didn’t understand someone’s winning thrust.

9. Maria Severa (Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli) Ever longer grows the list of recent Broadway musicals (like Spring Awaking, Billy Elliott, and In the Heights) that we have not seen and, frankly, don’t feel the urge to see. So will we make it a priority to see this brand-new musical by two talented members of the Shaw Festival company (Jay Turvey and Jay Sportelli)?

The play is about Maria Severa, a historical character who, in her short life (1820-1846), became a legendary Portugese singer of fado songs.  Julie Martell, who is both easy on the eyes and an excellent singer, will play the title role.

10. When the Rain Stops Falling (Andrew Bovell). We don’t know about this one. Here’s what Ben Brantley said in a review of a London production of this Australian play in the New York Times last summer:

The play begins with people hidden by umbrellas walking in circles under sheets of water, until a man in the center of the stage is compelled to scream a scream of human angst. Then a fish falls into his arms.

11. On the Rocks (George Bernard Shaw). Besides three of Shaw’s best-known plays, the 2010 season will include one of his least-known — or, at least, an adaptation of it. We were altogether unfamiliar with this late (1933) Shaw play till we saw it was going to be offered in 2011, so we read it.  We can now explain (a) why, in 50 years, this is only the second time the Shaw Festival has put on On the Rocks and (b) why it needed to be “adapted”.

Interviewed at the age of 92, P. G. Wodehouse stated, “I don’t want to be like Bernard Shaw. He turned out some awfully bad stuff in his nineties. He said he knew the stuff was bad but he couldn’t stop writing.”  Shaw may not have been in his nineties when he wrote On the Rocks, but it’s the sort of thing Wodehouse was talking about.  As Shaw wrote it, On the Rocks is a tedious play about a conservative English prime minister and his cabinet who, in a time of national crisis that has brought the nation close to anarchy, suddenly “realize” that various collectivist measures are what is needed to save the country. It’s the equivalent of a radical socialist’s wet dream. The characters, on the page anyway, are wooden and featureless. No doubt the adaptation, by Michael Healey, will be more interesting than if we were given Shaw’s play straight, but we’re not attracted.

After the Dance at the Shaw Festival

After the Dance, playing through October 6 at the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), is a terrific play, and director Christopher Newton and his cast are putting on a first-class show.

Reading the program notes, Emsworth was reminded that many of his most memorable experiences at the Shaw Festival have been directed by Mr. Newton, not just plays like Noel Coward’s Cavalcade and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan that are revived with some regularity, but also plays like Hobson’s Choice and Journey’s End that may have been popular in their day but are less known now.

After the Dance falls in neither category. It was a comparative flop in 1939, and in America we don’t know much about the playwright, Terence Ratigan. Yet Coward himself might have been proud to have written this witty, insightful play.

Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan as Joan and David Scott-Fowler

It is 1938, and Joan and David Scott-Fowler have been married for twelve years. In the roaring twenties, they were among the bright young things whose drunken parties and carefully cultivated poses were chronicled by Evelyn Waugh in his wickedly funny novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies. Now, twelve aimless years later, life has become too, too boring for Joan and David and their friends.

David and Joan (played by Deborah Hay) are fond of each other, but their married life is as superficial as their social life. They hold parties in their stunning London apartment (designed by the Shaw’s William Schmuck), go to other people’s parties, and talk about parties past. And they have a permanent house guest in John Reid (played by Neil Barclay), who is witty, rotund, and unemployed.

They all drink, but David (Patrick Galligan) drinks too much. A history student in his university days, David works now and then on a biography of an obscure 19th-century Italian king; he has even hired his cousin Peter (played by Ken James Stewart) to take dictation and act as his secretary. But he knows his scholarship is shallow and that his prose is riddled with cliches.

Marla McClean and Ken James Stewart as Helen and Peter

As the play begins, a new friend has come into David’s life, Peter’s 20-year-old fiance Helen (played by Marla McLean). Peter wants desperately to marry Helen, but his income is too small. What Peter does not know, but what everyone else sees, is that Helen has fallen in love with David and wants to rescue him from self-destruction. David and Joan’s marriage hangs uneasily in the balance.

It is easy to care about these characters and to hurt when they hurt. In a brilliantly-penned scene at the end of the first act, David tells Joan that his book is worthless and that there is no point in starting over. We know — as does she — that he is also talking about their wasted life together.

David is a marvelous role for the square-jawed, silver-haired Patrick Galligan, one of our favorite actors at the Shaw Festival. We couldn’t help being reminded of his role several years ago in Journey’s End, set twenty years earlier in a foxhole during the Great War, in which he held together his embattled platoon (and anchored the play) with nothing more than his character’s decency and calm good sense.

And we can’t remember when we’ve enjoyed the talented Neil Barclay quite this much. Barclay has exquisite comic timing, and his scenes with Galligan and with Jay Turvey (who plays one of the few characters who has actually made something of himself, and who wants to give John Reid a job) are highlights of the play. The only disappointment in the show is the role of young Peter Scott-Fowler, played by Ken James Stewart, whose acting skills fall short of the standards set by the rest of the cast.

Neil Barclay and Deborah Hay

As Julia Browne, a party friend of the Scott-Fowlers who sweeps on and off the stage, carrying all before her, Lisa Horner is a standout. Best of all is Deborah Hay as the vulnerable, intelligent Joan Scott-Fowler, who realizes all too late what keeping her emotional distance from her husband has cost her.