Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ragtime"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark


"Ragtime"

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Frank Galati
Musical Staging by Graciella Daniele

Production Design by Eugene Lee
Lighting Design by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer
Costume Design by Santo Loquasto
Sound Design by Jonathan Deans
Production Stage Manager Randall Whitescarver
Stage Manager Tracy Lightel

Tateh.....................................................................Michael Rupert
Coalhouse Walker Jr. ......................................Lawrence Hamilton
Mother.........................................................Rebecca Eichenberger
Sarah....................................................................Darlesia Cearcy
Mother’s Younger Brother.......................................Aloysius Gigl
Father.................................................................Cris Groenendaal
Little Boy...................................Nathan Keen/Christopher Cordell
Booker T. Washington.................................................Allan Louis
The Little Girl..........................Jenell Slack/Danielle Marie Raniere
Grandfather..............................................................Austin Collyer
Emma Goldman.........................................................Theresa Tova
Evelyn Nesbit..............................................................Melissa Dye
Harry Houdini............................................................Bernie Yvon
J. P. Morgan/Judge....................................................Ray Friedeck
Henry Ford/Policeman/Conductor/Bureaucrat/Reporter...Larry Cahn
Stanford White........................................................David Gagnon
Harry K. Thaw/Policeman.........................................Stephen Reed
Admiral Peary/Trolley Conductor/Reporter/Charles S. Whitman...David Hess
Matthew Henson/Black Lawyer/Gang Member........David Jennings
Foreman....................................................................Austin Colyer
Reporter/Fireman/Clerk................................................Todd Jones
Kathleen/2nd Bureaucrat/Welfare Official...........Elinore O’Connell
Doctor/Child Buyer...................................................Scott Gagnon
Sarah’s Friend..............................................................Inga Ballard
Willie Conklin.......................................................Christian Whelan
Brigit/Baron’s Assistant............................................Elena Ferrante
Pas de Deux...........................................Phillip Michael Baskerville
Pas de Deux........................................................................Ivy Fox
Little Coalhouse........................................................Trevon Offley


“Ragtime” is already a classic, and it has been sold out for months. I saw it from the second-from-the-last row of the second balcony (R BALC G 102) on Tuesday, 2 February for $55.00, and there were a few empty rows up there. There might still be BosTix seats available day of performance, and apparently “Broadway in Boston” is still selling Season Subscriptions with special seating arrangements that include this sold-out show. I say all this because “Ragtime” is a powerful musical of epic proportions that must be seen to be believed and, frankly, I think it looks better the higher up you sit. You don’t have to know anything about the novel to understand the show, you don’t need to read anyone’s reviews, including this one. Unless you can get BosTix or Subscriber seats, you will not sit close to the stage, but if you have any free time between now and the 28th of March when it must leave Boston, you should see the best musical to come through this city in the past twenty years. If you had any sense, you’d see it twice. It’s worth whatever you have to pay, and more.

“Ragtime” uses all the resources available in the theater of today, from the most intimately human to the grandiose. Terrence McNally’s book takes the form of an historical pageant or documentary, with characters stepping out of history to provide explanations and commentary and footnotes. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have provided songs --- not a fake-opera sung-through score, but thirty musical numbers that the cast (not a one of them with a name you will recognize, even though the word backstage is that this is a better cast than the one working on Broadway) can sing through to their stirring climaxes.

Eugene Lee has filled the Colonial Theatre with sets that are concrete images not mere spectacle. He shows a wriggling mass of excited immigrants rushing through the three gates of Ellis Island onto the sprawling stage of America’s opportunities. He provides a steel-truss bridge from which an efficiency-hungry Henry Ford can watch his assembly-line of people try to speed production --- a bridge across which a portly, implacably rich J. P. Morgan can stride, imperiously ignoring the fact that the bridge is slowly crushing dozens of poorer workmen beneath its weight, beneath his weight. He gives you the airy, cheery, lily-white suburbs of New Rochelle, the tenement-shadowed lower East-Side, the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, A railway observation-car rushing across the continent from the dangers of ghetto New York to the opportunities of California, and a rich man’s library oozing affluence from every polished mahogany inlaid shelf.

E. L. Doctorow’s book was a “photographic novel” that started with carefully described static images, and then animated them with action. McNally’s book for this musical is not any one story, but it’s as episodic, jagged, and intermittent as that jangling music that dominated the world after 1900, and before Jazz and World War I. There is no one hero --- unless it is America in flux. One strain of story concerns a family so well-off Father can go off to spend a year trying to walk to the South Pole with Admiral Peary. A second flings a Jewish artist and his young daughter into the poverty and opportunities of a new land. The third has a Black man expecting dignity and justice and outraged at its denial.

For the show’s opening number (“Ragtime”) Choreographer Graciella Daniele weaves representatives of all three stories through an intricate minuet of intermingling separatenesses set to Flaherty’s variations on rag. The massed movements and intertwinings illustrate the show’s theme expertly, and are probably much less coherent from the expensive orchestra seats than from the balconies. But her choreography really explodes about a third of the way through the first act with a Harlem-set ensemble spectacle called “The Gettin Ready Rag”. From that moment on the show has its audience by the throat and never lets go.

I said there were no name stars in this cast, but this show is an instant star-maker, and anyone who can sing these songs and act these parts is, already, a major star with a name you will recognize from now on. The incredible power of the Flaherty & Ahrens songs makes their singers larger than life, whether it’s Cris Groenendaal’s meditative “Journey On” or Michael Rupert’s “Gliding” or Darlesia Cearcy’s “Your Daddy’s Son” or Lawrence Hamilton’s “Wheels of a Dream” that power is inescapable, and when Rebecca Eichenberger sings the words “You can never go Back To Before” late in the second act, the essence of this magnificent musical epic becomes clear.

Boston has a trunk-full of people to thank for the presence of “Ragtime” in our city, beginning with the cast and crew and orchestra, and going on to the creators who made their excellences part of the whole. But when someone inquired backstage “Every show is the work of one major person, but who was the power behind this one?” the answer was “This show is Garth’s, all the way.” The quip “This is a show worth going to jail for” is less a cynical comment on Garth Drabinsky’s financial difficulties as it is an admiring tribute to someone who apparently would do anything to make this show a reality.

But at the end of a long list of names it must be pointed out that it was Jon Platt who did whatever a theater manager could to bring this show here to Boston. Platt can never be thanked enough or praised enough for all he has given the theatergoers of this city. The bright gilt paint and restored murals and dusted details of his theatre --- and The Colonial is Jon Platt’s theatre --- all shine because of his unsung insistence. And when this show leaves, Platt has made certain that his theatre will never be dark again, if he has anything to say about it. So Boston theatergoers may rest assured that they will see the best theater available. And, because of Jon Platt’s unassuming insistence that it come here, for the next twenty years people will be able to exit his Colonial Theatre saying to one another “Yeah, that was a good show, a great show, a lovely show but, you know ... it’s no ‘Ragtime’ is it.”

Love,
===Anon.


"Ragtime" (till 28 March)
THE COLONIAL THEATRE
106 Boylston Street, BOSTON
1(617)931-2787

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