Ragtime: A Review

I didn't have the pleasure of seeing Ragtime the first time that it was on Broadway 10 years ago. I've read the reviews though, essentially everyone agrees that it was a great show, had enormous potential, but that the production was a bit lacking, and would be too big for very many theaters off Broadway to ever produce. It is sort of a white whale of a show requiring a cast of around 40, a car, several widely varied locations, a ton of period costuming... it really is a difficult show to put on with any sort of a small budget. Thankfully the Kennedy Center produced a new large scale production that was so well received that it was brought to Broadway again, a bare decade since it originally closed, which is pretty unusual. But I agree, this show is well worth it, and more than ready to come back.

The show itself is an odd animal, and sort of weirdly presentational. No one outside of the historic characters (like Booker T Washington and Harry Houdini) has a name, and instead refer to each other as "Mother" or "Father." The most off putting being "Younger Brother." It is just an awkward mouthful, especially when the character refers to himself in third person that way. Once you get past this quirk though the show is packed with drama and story. Three families interweave through a single year in their lives, 1906, and any one of the families' stories would be more than enough to pack most shows, but the deft weaving of these threes stories is where the real power of this show lies.

There are some powerful performances here. Christiane Noll as "Mother" is by far the strongest performance in the show. Her character arc cuts to the heart of everything that was happening in this era, changing attitudes on race, and on the woman's place in society, the changing role of the mother, the new attitudes about child rearing and family... it is a lot to carry, and she does it perfectly. Every line, even the third person expository toss offs, are wrung fully dry of their meaning, and it is at turns hilarious and heart breaking.

The other outstanding performance is Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse Walker. Here is another role burdened by layer after layer of story, a ragtime piano player with an illegitimate child who is struggling to be the perfect example of his race as Booker T Washington has taught him, but at the same time being crushed under institutional racism. Coalhouse has some power-packed songs that will leave you breathless, and handles two of the shows biggest props, the car and the piano, with grace.

The set is a wonder, a three story cast-iron style catwalk that with ease becomes a ship, a factory, a home, a theatre, a library... a dozen things. The set is minimal in some ways but full of Victorian styling if you know where to look. It echos the cast-iron buildings of Soho and middle Manhattan, as well as place like the Crystal Pavilion and the the original Penn Station that were so important to the aesthetics of this era. The larger props follow this idea, being little more than frameworks that suggest the prop, but keep them in the light and airy style of the set. (You can sort of make out the piano in the background of this shot.) It is an incredibly versatile way of creating the set that supports the show, but leaves most of the visual cueing to the costumes, which are also beautiful, and easily capable of supporting the show. The color coding at the top of the show (the white cast in creams and tans, the black cast in rusts and yellows, the immigrants in grays and blacks) is incredibly effective, and that sort of thought carries through the show, leaving the big "pops" of color to the entertainers (Evelyn Nesbitt and Harry Houdini) or the bands that march through on occasion. My only wish is that the set designer had trusted his concept and run with it for the whole show. Tateh's cart, the library furniture and the funeral wagon, are all far too real and solid, and step away from the way everything else is presented in a distracting way. The worst example is the street light that is dragged in for Coalhouse's dream in Act 2. It doesn't turn on (that may have been an error, this is still in previews) doesn't match the style of the set, and adds very little to the sequence. Cut it and trust the set to do its job, it is succeeding wildly on most other occasions. My other tiny quibble with the set is the central catwalk, that raises and lowers at several points in the show. They seriously need to check the rigging on that thing. There is a point in the second act where about 8 people are standing on it and with each new person that stepped on it dropped several inches. It took me right out of the show because I was afraid for the actors! I have no idea if anyone besides me would ever notice such a thing though.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that this production also boasts a 28 piece orchestra. Most Broadway productions these days make do with 15 pieces, if that, and I really never knew what an experience I was missing. The full rich sound that this orchestra produces is far superior, and will make you long to hear other shows produced this way.

In all, a nearly 5 star show. I am very happy to have seen it and would recommend it to anyone who is coming through the city.

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