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.

Advertisements

Play, Orchestra, Play at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Jamieson and Turvey2

The Peppers are a bit old in the tooth to pass for a pair of young sailors

After seeing three of them, we can say with assurance that it was an excellent idea for the Shaw Festival to give four of its season’s shows over to Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. The show at the Royal George Theater, Play, Orchestra, Play is every bit as entertaining as the others. 

The three one-act plays that make up Play, Orchestra, Play are quite different from each other: one is comic, one is brutally serious, and one is essentially a romantic fantasy. This is pretty much the same mix as in Brief Encounters, which we loved (see this post), but there is a good deal more music in Play, Orchestra, Play than in Brief Encounters — five songs in all, plus musical interludes between the plays.

First in order is Red Peppers, a slice from an evening in the life of George and Lily Pepper, a vaudeville pair who are are hanging on by their fingernails as the end of that era nears. The Peppers are still working, in cheap regional music halls, but their cross-talk is stale and their act’s not very good.

Jamieson and Turvey3

The Peppers squabble in their dressing room

We meet them on stage, dressed as a pair of sailors singing “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship”; the end of the number is spoiled when Lily (Patty Jamieson) drops her prop as they dance off the stage. As they change in their dressing room (the period costumes include vintage British underwear!), George (Jay Turvey) blames Lily for flubbing her exit, and they start rehashing old grievances.

But they stop bickering, close ranks, and redirect their fire toward the common enemy: the conductor of the house orchestra, the house manager, and another performer, all of whom drop by during the interlude before they go on again. (At some point in his career, Coward himself must have had to rely on unreliable house musicians for tempos; in Red Peppers he settles a score or two. In this production, unfortunately, the orchestra’s just a little too loud, so that we couldn’t catch all the lyrics to “Has Anyone Seen Our Ship” and “Men About Town.” No doubt the Peppers were familiar with that problem, too.) The insults fly around the dressing room; the pugnacious Peppers are shockingly willing to alienate the very people on whom they depend for professional survival. It’s all very funny, and very real.

Noel Coward

Coward

Coward was at the top of the entertainment world when he wrote this play in 1935. But he clearly loved people like the Peppers, who were at the bottom of the profession, for their fierce independence and their commitment to their craft. We met people a lot like the Peppers last winter when we read J. B. Priestley’s 1929 novel The Good Companions, which tells the story of a traveling troupe of perfomers who play small music halls throughout England.

The middle play, Fumed Oak, features the equally vulgar and far less lovable wife, daughter, and mother-in-law of Henry Gow. Fumed Oak is straight drama and has no musical numbers, but this was the play in Play, Orchestra, Play that we liked best.

Henry Gow & wife & child

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) does his best to ignore his whining daughter and bitchy wife

The unfortunate Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) has been stuck for years in a job as a retail clerk; worse, he’s married to Doris Gow (Patty Jamieson again), who long ago tricked him into marriage with the old pregnancy ploy, thereby frustrating his dream of going to sea and seeing the world. “You’re a bad lot, Dorrie,” Henry tells his wife. “Mean and cold and respectable.” It took three years after their “little rough and tumble” for a baby to be born; their daughter Elsie (Robin Evan Willis), now a teenager, is a “horrid little kid,” as Henry says. His mother-in-law (Wendy Thatcher) lives with them in their tiny, noisy apartment and whines and bitches at everyone.

Henry Gow loses it

Henry Gow (Stephen Sutcliffe) declares himself free

During the first part of Fumed Oak, Henry sits silently at his breakfast listening to the females snipe at one another. (Unlike the bickering in Red Peppers, there’s nothing funny about it.) During the second part, Henry carries off an enormously satisfying coup, gives the women what for, and escapes his hellish home. Is this play misognynist? We thought about it and decided it wasn’t.

We wondered what the title of this play meant. Henry Gow says that when Conrad and Kipling wrote about the sea, they “knew there was a bit more to it than refinement and fumed oak and lace curtains and getting old and miserable with nothing to show for it.” When we got home, we looked it up and found that “fumed oak” is oak that has been darkened by exposure to ammonia — not a bad metaphor for Coward’s character.

The show concludes with Shadow Play. Unlike the first two plays, which deal with working class folk, Shadow Play delves into the lives of the rich and fashionable. (Coward was remarkably familiar with people of all stations in life.)

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe2

Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe as Vicki and Simon in Shadow Play

In Red Peppers, vaudeville partners George and Lily Pepper had only each other to lean on. In Shadow Play, Vicky Gayforth (the exceptionally fetching Julie Martell) and her husband Simon (Stephen Sutcliffe again) are socialites who have forgotten why they needed each other in the first place. Simon is carrying on a notorious affair with Sibyl Heston (Robin Evan Willis again); Vicky is letting an infatuated young man pursue her, but hasn’t yet decided how far to let him go.

After Vicky and Simon have come back from a romantic play, Simon proposes that they divorce. But the desperately miserable Vicky has already taken extra sleeping pills, and the rest of the play is a drug-induced dream sequence, much of it in song, as Vicky relives their early romance. Julie Martell and Stephen Sutcliffe are fine duet partners (as they are in the Shaw Festival’s Sunday in the Park with George this summer, as well). The songs in Shadow Play are “Play, Orchestra, Play,” “Then,” and the melodic and memorable “You Were There.”

The backdrops for each of these one-act plays consist of scenes projected onto a screen (see the picture at the top of this post). These work very well and are especially effective during the fantasy sequences in Shadow Play.

Director Christopher Newton programmed a good many of Noël Coward’s full-length plays while he was the Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director. We hope the Shaw doesn’t take too long a break from Coward after this year. Surely, in a couple of years, it will be time for the Shaw to put on Cavalcade again — what an unforgettable show that was! And we’d really love to see The Vortex.

Emsworth reviews of other Shaw Festival productions in 2009:

John Osborne’s The Entertainer (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Ways of the Heart (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Star Chamber (see this post)
Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (see this post)
Noël Coward’s Brief Encounters (see this post)
Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (see this post)