Review: RAGTIME at Union Avenue Opera

The production runs through August 26.

By: Aug. 22, 2023
Review: RAGTIME at Union Avenue Opera

When the musical Ragtime was produced for Broadway in 1998 it was a colossal, big-budget show.  It cost some ten million dollars.  What in the world were the folks at tiny little Union Avenue Opera thinking when they decided to include this show in their twenty-ninth season?  Ragtime, the musical treatment of E. L. Doctorow’s vast rambling nostalgic, wonderfully American novel, is far removed from opera.

And yet they pulled it off!  This is the largest production ever attempted by Union Avenue.  There’s a cast of forty-two, and Artistic Director Scott Schoonover has once again magically assembled a group of splendid vocal talents.   Scenic and lighting designer Patrick Huber outdoes himself in presenting a set which capitalizes on the great height of the stage, and gracefully manages its limited breadth.  A railed balcony offers an elevated acting space, graceful stairs give access to it, and there is beautiful woodwork around and about it all.  An upright piano, stage left, is draped or revealed as needed.  Behind and above is a beautifully detailed painting of the great hall in Pennsylvania Station.  (The station was designed by Stanford White, whose murder led to “the trial of the century” which resonated through the “Gilded Age”—and resonates through this show.)

The story is set in 1904 to 1906.  The company’s resident costumer, Teresa Doggett, has (amazingly) provided multiple period costumes for most of this huge cast.  And they’re gorgeous and authentic.  The very opening scene brings the affluent New Rochelle community slowly, gracefully onto the stage—all in elegant summer white, “gently tinted” (as the lyric says) “in lavender and pink.”

Two other communities are soon introduced:  (1) the black Harlemites, dressed in their own distinctive fashion, and (2) the ragged immigrants from Eastern Europe.

E. L. Doctorow’s story portrays the stresses bedeviling America in this era—rich and poor, blacks and Irish, labor and management and automation—ragged immigrants and the affluent “Establishment”, who blithely assume that “everything is as it should be—so why are things changing?”  And, under it all, the evolving place of women.

As always, changing musical tastes underscore and amplify social changes.  The title, Ragtime, is deft;  it was indeed a time of rags.  The social fabric of America was being shredded—was becoming a “crazy quilt” or rag rug made up of snips and pieces.  A shipful of poor immigrants was called a “rag-ship”.  Scott Joplin’s “ragged” rhythms well befit these times.

The score is musically varied.   There is some gospel, there’s a cakewalk, a brass-band march, and of course lots of lovely, welcome ragtime—mostly the slow, elegant kind.  But much of the score can only be called “Broadway Show Music”.  Throughout the evening, the orchestra, led by Scott Schoonover, seemed particularly graceful and lucid.  Lovely flute work by Ann Dolan brightened a number of passages.

We meet a family with no names—just Father, Mother, Little Boy, Grandfather, and Mother’s Younger Brother.  Into their midst are thrust an abandoned black baby, the baby’s mother (Sarah), and eventually the baby’s father, the heavily benamed
Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who is a gifted pianist—and the central figure in this drama.

Strong voices abound.  Debby Lennon, a beloved long-time veteran on local stages, sings Mother.  Vocally she’s a marvel, and visually she’s a reincarnation of her graceful Desirée in last season’s A Little Night Music.  Eric J. McConnell sings Father.  He, too, appeared in Night Music (as Count Carl Magnus), but his performance as Father could not be further from the ludicrously over-confident count.  He does sensitive work, given that this text allows him to go only from Father-the-clueless to Father-the-simply-bad.  Yet he nicely presents the “weird despair” that Doctorow describes him experiencing as Father’s world falls apart.

Mother’s Younger Brother is a challenging role.  He’s idealistic and directionless and very needy.  And just a bit wacko.  James Stevens took on the role at the last minute after the singer who was originally cast fell ill.  And Stevens absolutely nails it.   (He gave us that remarkably fine Peter Quint in Turn of the Screw earlier this season.)

Nyghél J. Byrd is utterly commanding as Coalhouse Walker.  Strikingly handsome, he has a killer smile and a golden voice.  Coalhouse’s model-T is vandalized, and Byrd  clearly shows us the character’s descent from his initial faith in justice by the Law, through disappointment to radicalization—at which point Justice and Vengeance are indistinguishable.

Jazmine Olwalia sings Sarah, and she gives us the one moment in the show that is stunningly musically beautiful—in her lullaby to her baby.  Her voice rises sublimely into that high space.

Marc Schapman plays Tateh, the Latvian immigrant silhouette-maker.  His is one of the most powerful performances in the evening, as Tateh (“Daddy”) struggles to feed and protect his beloved daughter.  Later in the evening he shows a great transformation: Tateh has become a flamboyant silent-film director.

Gina Malone (another local favorite) sings the role of Evelyn Nesbit, the notorious “Girl on the Swing”—one of America’s first sex goddesses.  Ms. Malone shows a lovely soprano and strikingly fine diction—as well as quite a bit more.  Her scanty vaudeville costume recalls her delightful Ziegfeld Girl Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel six years ago.

Fine work is done by supporting players:  Chuck Lavazzi as Grandfather, Miles Brenton as Booker T. Washington, Liyah Khaimova as Emma Goldman, Joel Rogier as Harry Houdini, Philip Touchette as Willis Conklin, Cole Gutmann as J. P. Morgan, Anthony Heinemann as Henry Ford, Benjamin Worley as Admiral Peary, and Rose Fischer as Sarah’s friend.  Charming work is done by the younger performers:  Gavin Nobbe as Little Boy and Norah Sprowls as Tateh’s Little Girl. (Her small face can beam a smile clear to the balcony.)  Very young Jaron Bentley, as Coalhouse Walker III is cute as a button.

All of this is set onto the stage by the extravagantly gifted Shaun Patrick Tubbs (who staged Union Avenue’s Lost in the Stars five years ago).  Through dozens of scenes, dozens of numbers, and with this colossal cast Mr. Tubbs makes everything seem easy and graceful.  Astonishing!   People appearing from the soft shadows under the balcony is a lovely touch.

Leah Tubbs  does beautiful work as choreographer.  It’s most impressive.  The opening scene offers different dances simultaneously.  The Harlem cakewalk is particularly stylish and fine. 

So, hurrahs and bravos to the whole production team at Union Avenue. 

But there are problems with the show itself. 

  • There are simply too many big production numbers.  Every time you turn around you bump into a stage full of a production number.  This overwhelms the serious (but personal) problems of the individual characters.  The orchestration tends to get grand and lavish so it’s difficult to follow the lyric.
  • Do we really need so many people on stage?  The chorus could be happily reduced by a third.
  • There are just too many scenes.  Do we really need the labor rally?  Do we really need the Ford assembly-line?  Do we really need J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford?  These scenes do nothing toward furthering the plot.  Do we really need the baseball game?  (And a row of six crude fans would serve as well as a row of sixteen.)
  • The novel has forty chapters.  It’s impossible to scrunch all that into a three-hour musical.
  • Doctorow peppers his story with scores of famous names from the period.  In 270 pages he has time to blend these into the tale.   This musical, I sometimes felt, was engaged in a sort of name-dropping contest.
  • Most importantly:  There is no subtlety.  There is no subtext.  In Terrence McNally’s book and Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics every emotion—each anger, each disappointment, each doubt, each sense of injustice—is explicitly stated rather than dramatically shown.  Much of the text is distinctly preachy.  This show wears its virtue on its sleeve, so that at the end of this long evening you feel as if you had been subjected to about thirty versions of Rogers and Hammerstein’s tackiest, most condescending  song, “You’ve Got to Be Taught”.

But go!  Ragtime, as a musical, may have it’s flaws, but the Union Avenue Opera Company gives it a quite glorious production.  It brims with excellence and deep talent

(Photo by Dan Donovan)


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From This Author - Steve Callahan

A native Kansan I have a BA (Math and Theatre) and MA (Theatre). I was working on a PhD in Theatre when IBM sniffed my math background and lured me away with money enough to feed my (then two) childre... Steve Callahan">(read more about this author)


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