Monday, August 20, 2012

Ragtime at the Shaw Festival: History Lessons for the Already Enlightened

In his novel Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow uses the ragtime era – roughly the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the First World War – to investigate the confluence of contradictory impulses as America begins to hog the world spotlight. Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan embody the American dream in its quintessential (Horatio Alger) form, but their domination implies the oppression of wage slaves and the muting of voices that aren’t white and Christian. In Doctorow’s narrative scheme, the white-bread, well-off New Rochelle family, which has no reason to expect to meet anyone who isn’t exactly like them, crosses paths with African Americans (Mother finds a black baby buried but still breathing in her garden and takes in both mother and child), Jewish immigrants (in Atlantic City, Mother makes the acquaintance of Tateh, the Latvian Jewish immigrant who brings his little girl to America and winds up becoming a filmmaker) and the forces of radicalism (Younger Brother, Mother’s sibling, hears Emma Goldman orate in Union Square and later volunteers himself as a bomb maker for the mightily abused black man Coalhouse Walker, a one-time ragtime pianist and the baby’s father).

Ragtime is a relatively compact book with an epic feel. Doctorow is fascinated by all of the strands of this chapter in American history; his modernist contribution is a rich sense of irony.  He juxtaposes opposites: Ford and Morgan with Goldman and Booker T. Washington (Coalhouse's hero); the industrial dream that Ford represents with Tateh's immigrant dream to pull his daughter out of poverty; Ford's automobile with Tateh's moving pictures -- both produced by a mixture of art and technology. He also juxtaposes Coalhouse's rags with the vaudeville show in which Evelyn Nesbit, a celebrity but not an artist, draws curious crowds. Nesbit's husband, Harry Thaw, has killed her lover, the architect Stanford White; this so-called "crime of the century" makes her a star -- at least, for a few moments. In the first phase of his coming of age, Younger Brother falls in love with her. When she rejects him, he turns to other obsessions. Goldman's oratory and Walker's ordeal politicize him, turning him from a callow would-be lover into a warrior for the cause of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. And Harry Houdini’s escape trick becomes a metaphor for the escape trick every successful immigrant masters – yet, like Houdini, never masters completely.

The book expands in your head after you’ve read it. The 1996 musical play, with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, shrinks it. Oh, it’s a big show physically: the writers have retained most of the characters and plot lines and even most of Doctorow’s themes. But they’ve shifted the tone from ironic to didactic. The characters seem acutely aware of the ideas they’re meant to represent; they lecture the audience in the form of songs whose titles point neon arrows at those ideas: “Success,” “Wheels of a Dream,” “Till We Reach That Day,” “Make Them Hear You.” Musically most of these are ringing anthems devised by Flaherty to get theatergoers up on their feet, and they do, while Ahrens’s lyrics lay everything out so you can’t possibly miss the point. Only Oscar Hammerstein at his most hammer-headed was ever this explicit. And the medium for her lessons is generally Mother.

Ragtime at the Shaw Festival (photo by Emily Cooper)

When Mother unearths Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby, she turns to the audience and explains (in the song “What Kind of Woman”) that she grew up isolated from the lives of those below the middle class and her husband has locked her behind a protective door but she’s peeked through it, and if she refuses to get involved in the lives of this terrified young black woman and her abandoned child, what kind of woman would she be? This woman is so knowing that she can only be the voice of the writers; she doesn’t have to learn a thing, because she always instinctively does what’s right (and with a fully formed feminist consciousness) and then explains to us why and what it means. “We can never go back to before,” she instructs us near the end of the second act – a dreadful phrase, by the way, whose ungrammatical nature is irritatingly contemporary-sounding. (And while I’m carping about the lyrics, dreams don’t run on wheels; there’s a singularly unfortunate image.) 

Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker
Ragtime certainly isn’t boring, even at close to three hours, because there’s so much going on in it. But for all its plot (and it probably has more plot than any other musical ever written) and all its characters, the show has the voice of a high-school civics-class primer. You can understand why audiences eat it up: it pats us on the back for being superior to Father, who doesn’t understand why his wife wants to take in a black woman and her child, and to those who see nothing wrong in starving mill workers or beating immigrant Jews and African Americans. It’s the ideal millennial musical: all of its attitudes are acceptable and preprogrammed, and they reflect the kind of feel-good liberalism that probably even the Tea Party couldn’t object to.

I have too much affection for the Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, to begrudge it the success it’s currently enjoying with a revival of Ragtime, and really the production isn’t bad. The director, Jackie Maxwell (who is also the festival’s artistic director), keeps it moving, with the help of choreographer Valerie Moore, and though the show is overmiked, Paul Sportelli’s musical direction is excellent, and so are the voices. Maxwell works with a cast of thirty, half as large as the original production (which began in Toronto and made it to Broadway in 1998) but enormous by today’s standards, and there are only a few times – notably the scene where Sarah is beaten to death by cops when she naively tries to approach President McKinley on Coalhouse Walker’s behalf at the end of act one – when they seem dwarfed by the Festival Theatre stage and Sue LePage’s intricate, clever set, all scaffolding and staircases and suspension bridges. The staging has the virtue of clarity. But it doesn’t work against the essential flatness of the script, and the choreography rises above the ordinary on only one occasion, when some gifted black dancers perform “The Getting Ready Rag.”

Aidan Tye as Little Boy and Benedict Campbell as Father in Ragtime.
(photo by David Cooper)
The cast is adequate to the basic demands of the show, for the most part. A glaring exception is Jay Turvey, who’s ludicrously miscast as Tateh. Aadin Church’s voice is too weak and tremulous for Booker T. Washington’s songs, and Kate Hennig has so little charisma as Emma Goldman that when Younger Brother (Evan Alexander Smith, who sings prettily but has a rather colorless personality) sings “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” you’re not quite sure what about this woman could possibly have turned his life around. Fortunately the center of the show is Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker, in the role that made Brian Stokes Mitchell a Broadway star, and he has both the outsize personality to helm it and the voice to support it. His warm, bluesy vocals bring out the best in the mediocre Flaherty-Ahrens songs. Patty Jamieson does what she can with the role of Mother; she’s a hard-working, intelligent performer and the conception of the role is hardly her fault. But Benedict Campbell is snowed under by the part of Father, whom the writers simply don’t like. Alana Hibbert has perhaps been asked to do too much with Sarah’s first-act ballad, “Your Daddy’s Son”; she begins it sweetly, then overacts it. Julie Martell and Kelly Wong bring some wit and presence to the respective roles of Evelyn Nesbit and Houdini. And Neil Barclay (a memorable Alfred P. Doolittle in last season’s My Fair Lady) exercises his musical-theatre savvy in the abbreviated role of Willie Conklin, the chief of the Providence Volunteer Fire Department, whose racist treatment of Coalhouse is the drift that initiates an avalanche.

The production is well oiled and doesn’t feel like a miniature version of something that was once big-boned. It’s the musical itself that thinks small.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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