BWW Review: Do Yourself Justice: Go See RAGTIME at the Hobby Center
Times have changed. Or have they?
Theatre Under the Stars' RAGTIME presents a historically-based snapshot of America in the early 20th century, when class, gender, and race collided in a fight for representation and civil rights. A time when immigrants were feared by many white Americans, who were, of course, once immigrants themselves. When discrimination was legal, and people had no name - just a color or a class. When 'the other' was considered a lesser being. Those were not the glory days of America, but they were a time when great individuals stood up - often defying the law and societal norms - to fight for progress and change. This spectacular production of RAGTIME holds a mirror up to America, and the reflection isn't always pretty. But it is imperative and important that we see ourselves, our past, and our potential future in that mirror, for those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.
Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel about immigrants, RAGTIME tells the story of three disparate stereotypical archetypes in America. We meet Father and Mother, who represent a white, upper-class, Christian family, deeply fearful of change. Tateh is a marginalized Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who comes to America seeking a better life for his daughter. And there is Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a talented and successful African American musician from Harlem, who finds his happy life with his love Sarah derailed by hatred and racism.
When the lives of these characters (as representations of larger groups) intersect, RAGTIME asks big questions of its audience. For what does America stand? Who belongs in America? What are American ideals? These questions aren't exclusive to yesteryear, nor are they unique to this play; our news challenges us with these notions every day, in almost every story. Like the news, responses and interpretations will vary between audience members. However, all viewers will agree that the individual plight of these characters represent the very human and very relatable desire for love, acceptance, and a voice. Via those accessible through-lines, RAGTIME achieves the very difficult act of producing nostalgic work that connects with current audiences.
These three worlds become intertwined by situational chance, and also by historical celebrities. Tycoon J.P. Morgan, inventor Henry Ford, activists Booker T. Washington and Emma Goldman, along with noted entertainers such as Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit, help establish the time and place in history, and lend RAGTIME a heightened sense of accuracy within Terrence McNally and Lynn Ahrens' work of historical fiction.
When RAGTIME premiered on Broadway in 1998, critics and audiences took notice. The production was nominated for a whopping 13 Tony awards, walking away with four, included Best Book of a Musical, Best Orchestrations, and Best Original Score. In 2010, the RAGTIME revival garnered six more Tony noms, including Best Direction for Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who joined TUTS for this production, as both director and choreographer.
In Dodge's experienced hands, RAGTIME seamlessly flows between historical markers and intimate, identifiable stories about life. The first and last songs are included solely for the sake of exposition and scene setting, which felt unnecessary. In those same two songs, characters first introduced themselves, and then later spoke about their life in the third person, which I found distracting and off-putting. I understand the importance of those songs for audiences for whom social studies was a class long-forgotten, or not yet taken, and of course, they are a part of the original book. Dodge does her best with those difficult bookend scenes, choreographing movement which delineates the various facets of society represented on stage. The rest of the show, however, is presented effortlessly, feeling far shorter than its nearly three-hour run time.
RAGTIME is a true ensemble production in every sense of the word. There's no question that Dodge partnered closely with her talented team, including set designer Kevin Depinet, projection designer Kevan Loney, lighting designer Matthew Richards, and costume director Santo Loquasto, to reach a shared vision of a set that could demarcate varied scenes, allow for smooth transitions, and accommodate up to 34 cast members at one time.
Depinet's simple, unassuming set, consisting primarily of two movable staircases and a plethora of props, allows room for Dodge's other strength - that of a choreographer - to have the (literal) space to shine. RAGTIME doesn't lend itself to a large, boisterous ensemble numbers; instead it focuses on intimate moments, subtle slow dances, metaphorical shadows, and carefully crafted movement, such as the poise of the well-to-do, and the posture of a man wronged.
RAGTIME is brilliantly acted by a committed cast, nearly all of whom play multiple roles, deftly maneuvering between changing parts, attitudes and costumes, from unwanted immigrants at a port, to participants in a riot, to silent onlookers of a love story.
Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse is the very soul of the show. Though just chronicling a short time in his life, his character develops more than any other, allowing Andrew to showcase his wink-and-nod comedic timing, his range as a physical actor, his dashing demeanor, and smooth-as-silk voice. Andrew capably grows his character from man in love, to man in rage, complete with palpable emotion. As the heart to Colehouse's soul, Danyel Fulton plays young mother Sarah. I could wax poetic, but this sums up Fulton's talent in a nutshell: when she sings, her voice aches. Coalhouse and Sarah represent the ongoing and wrongful discrimination and lack of representation of African Americans in a land where "all men are created equal."
As Father, Ryan Silverman excels in his role as a selfish, stubborn man, riddled by lack of character and compassion. His wife, Mother, played by Courtney Markowitz, is his inverse, as kind, gentle, and loving as Father is stoic and sullen. Markowitz's Mother experiences the most fulfilling changes for the audience - if only every character could share her open-minded personality. Evan Kinnane plays Mother's Younger Brother, bringing energy and spitfire to his role as a white man struggling between his assumed place of privilege, and his desire to seek justice and equality for all. Kinnane's scenes with Silverman, and those with Andrew, are super charged with raw emotion, a scary, real, and wondrous sight to behold.
As Tateh, Robert Petkoff represents the plight of unwanted immigrants, which nearly all of us can identify at some point in our familial history. Although his accent, customs, and garb may vary, Tateh is exactly like every other parent in the world; he wants to give his daughter a better life than he had, a life rich with opportunity, free from persecution. His fantasies of America are that of the American economic ideal, and he struggles to overcome the painful realization that a country propelled by dreams, may not have room for his own. Petkoff plays Tateh as a highly-nuanced, relatable chameleon, affable and polite when necessary, burying his disappointment and rage deep within, fearful of displaying his true self, for doing so may result in deportation.
RAGTIME is a serious play that presents serious issues. However, not all is dark and foreboding. As entertainer with a sordid past, Evelyn Nesbit, played by Emma Degerstedt, brings much appreciated moments of levity to the heavy material. Degerstedt plays her character as cheeky, cheerful, and confident. I imagine that Dave Bova had as much fun designing her hair and makeup, as Loquasto did creating her costumes.
Like the show itself, Stephen Flaherty's rich score is soulful, stirring, and historically accurate. The simple, familiar piano plucks of ragtime, coupled with cakewalks, and deeply haunting gospel tunes are all executed to perfection by RAGTIME's spectacular 20+ piece orchestra - playing the original Broadway orchestrations, no less - ably led by music director Brad Haak.
RAGTIME paints a vivid portrait of where America used to be. It is an infuriating reminder of how far we still have to go. And at its core, it is a heart-wrenching story of change, love, and acceptance. Go see RAGTIME. Take your kids. Take your grandparents. For anyone with a beating heart will exit the theatre a better person.
Theatre Under The Stars presents RAGTIME, running now through April 28th at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby Street. Tickets start at $30. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit tuts.com or call the box office at 713-558-8887.