BWW Review: RAGTIME Tells A Story That Must Be Heard At Cain Park

BWW Review: RAGTIME Tells A Story That Must Be Heard At Cain Park

It is entirely appropriate in this era of rising anti-immigrant feelings, the re-emergence of the White Supremacy movement, increased anti-Semitism, and having a President who believes in nationalism and Eugenics, that Cain Park revisit the historical foundations of this country via the musical "Ragtime."

The history lesson is based on E. L. Doctorow's epic 1975 novel "Ragtime."

The musicalhas a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and marches, cakewalks, gospeland ragtimemusic by Stephen Flaherty.

The Broadway production, which opened on January 18, 1998, and ran for two years, was met with mixed reviews, but still garnered 13 Tony nominations. Itintroduced such up-coming super stars as Lea Michele, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald.

The musical "tells the story of three groups in the United Statesin the early 20th century: African Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother, the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia."

All of these present a picture of this country when the phrase "I lift my lamp beside the golden door" meant that those who needed a place to escape, to look for their "golden medina" (Yiddish meaning promised land), were welcome.

Upper-class white Christian families had established a pattern of privilege and were secure in having their needs and wants met. Blacks and the immigrants were subjected to prejudices and misunderstandings because they were not part of the "in-group."

"Ragtime"confronts the contradictions inherent in American reality: experiences of wealth and poverty, freedom and prejudice, hope and despair.

The tales and attitudes of real celebrities, such as J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, activists such as Booker T. Washington and fiery orator and union organizer Emma Goldman, and entertainers such as Harry Houdini are woven into the well-told tale.

The score is powerful and is the tool that carries the story telling.

Songs such as "Prologue: Ragtime" and "Goodbye, My Love," foreshadow the story's development. "A Shtetl iz Amereke" sets the wishes and dreams of the new immigrants. "His Name Was Coalhouse Walker" and "Getting' Ready Rag" introduce the plight of Blacks, the only immigrants who didn't have a choice about coming to this country, and their fears and frustrations.

"Henry Ford" provides the picture of industrial America and its role in the development of the "American" way. The powerful "The Night that Goldman Spoke at Union Square" placed a spotlight on the abuse of workers by the likes of Ford, and the need for unionization.

The powerful "Justice" highlighted the oppression and abuse of Blacks by white nationalists.

"Till We Reach That Day" is a moving anthem to the need for respect for all.

"Sarah Brown Eyes" is an anthem to love, while "Make Them Hear You" is an appeal to the need for respect and tolerance.

Those who have been to the Alma Theatre in Cain Park will need to adapt their expectations as the entire theatre has been reconfigured. The proscenium stage has been replaced by a center platform in an oval configuration, with the audience surrounding the elongated stage on two sides. (Be aware that it can be a precarious adventure to navigate the uneven levels to get to some of the new seating.)

The present format allows the audience to be close to the action and become emotionally involved in the show. This script was aided by the new stage.

On the other hand, as is often a problem with stage formats where the audience surrounds the actors, hearing can be problematic. In the case of "Ragtime," the lack of sound balance between the orchestra and the singers meant that the sound battle often resulted in the loss of hearing the lyrics to the songs. That's too bad, because those words are vital to understanding the intent and purpose of the author.

Joanna May Cullinan's focused directing helped develop the story line. She was aided by a cast which could act, sing and dance with proficiency and purpose, and purposeful choreography by Imani Jackson.

Young Jake Spencer was delightful as Edgar, the little boy who acted as the show's narrator and commentator. Bridie Carroll was compelling as Mother, a woman ahead of her time. Her "Goodbye My Love" and "Back to Before" were emotionally moving.

Mariah Burks presented a Sarah who sang and acted with clarity. Her version of "Your Daddy's Son" was exceptional. "Wheels of a Dream," which she sang with Coalhouse, was one of the production's highlights.

Though at times he could have been more verbally and physically dynamic as an actor, Eugene Sumlin (Coalhouse), has a powerful vocal range and demanded attention and respect in "Justice" and "Make Them Hear You."

Will Price was superlative. I've seen this show a half-dozen times and he ranks as one of the best Mother's Younger Brother that I've reviewed.

Kate Leigh Michalski didn't portray Emma Goldman; she WAS Emma Goldman! Her performances in both "That Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square" and "He Wanted To Say" almost brought the audience out of their seats to march with her to support her cause.

Scott Esposito made Tateh into a compassionate and wise "mensch." He has a solid singing voice and was appealing in his presentation of "Gliding." "Our Children," sung with Mother, was charming.

The rest of cast, especially the African American dancers, were excellent.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: "Ragtime" tells an important tale that needs to be seen and heard. Except for an over-enthusiastic orchestra and some audio balance problems, this production does the script justice. It's well worth the sit!

The show runs through June 30, 2019 in the Alma atre in Cleveland Heights' Cain Park. For tickets call 216-371-3000 or go to

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From This Author Roy Berko

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