By Dalt Wonk
Sonny Borey made his mark with splashy, well-produced musicals where all "i"s were dotted and all the "t"s were crossed. So it's not surprising that Le Petit, under his energetic stewardship, has taken musical theater to its heart. This season's brochure boasts three musicals on the main stage, three in the children's corner, and an innovative concert season that offered yet another three: Evita, Louisiana Purchase (a little-known piece by Irving Berlin), and most recently, Ragtime: The Musical.
Ragtime, the novel by E.L. Doctorow, was published in 1975. A mega-hit, the book sold more than 7 million copies in 30 or so languages. It became a movie in 1981, and was swept into the musicals-made-from-movies sweepstakes in 1998, garnering 13 Tony nominations and winning four including Best Book for Terrence McNally and Best Score for Stephen Flaherty.
The script weaves together three main stories. One concerns an affluent WASP family: Father (Jerry Zachary) and his wife called Mother (Terri Gervais), their son (Ethan Andersen), Mother's younger brother (Michael Santora) and a surly old grandfather (Walter Bost). Closely connected is the story of Coalhouse Walker (Troy Poplous), a ragtime piano player who falls in love with a girl named Sarah (LaKeisha Lawrence), does her wrong and then repents of his lowdown ways.
While gardening, Mother discovers a newborn black baby who had been buried alive. She rescues it, and identifying the mother as Sarah, takes them both in, giving them living quarters in her attic. Mother's bold altruism is possible because Father happens to be away exploring the North Pole with Admiral Perry. Coalhouse locates Sarah and, after a long courtship, wins her back. They drive off in their Flivver to celebrate and sing a hopeful anthem about their ever-improving possibilities and America.
Meanwhile, arriving in America, also full of exultation is an impoverished Latvian Jew named Tateh (Lary Hesdorffer) and his daughter (Alexis Bruza). Tateh is an artist who makes cutout silhouette portraits from paper, a craft that, as it turns out, the New World is not waiting for with baited breath. Tateh and his daughter wander through the landscape of the other stories. At one point, they meet Mother and her son, by chance, at a trolley station -- this is a foreshadowing of a future and more meaningful encounter.
Anyway, when a racist slob of a fire chief incites his men to destroy Coalhouse's Model T, the musician becomes enraged. He won't marry Sarah until he sees justice done. Justice is not done, however. And Sarah, desperate to set things back on the right track, decides to approach the president of the United States and ask for his help. Unfortunately, with the McKinley assassination fresh in everyone's mind, the security forces are on high alert. Sarah is clubbed to death by a cop. Coalhouse goes insane with grief, forms a terrorist gang and starts a sort of guerilla war against an unjust society. With Younger Brother as one of his cohorts, Walker occupies the J.P. Morgan Library and threatens to blow it sky high, unless the fire chief repairs the car he destroyed.
Amid this high-flown drama, we encounter such figures as Harry Houdini (Paul Bello), Booker T. Washington (William Banks), Admiral Perry (Myer Bishop), J.P. Morgan (Mark Burton), communist firebrand Emma Goldman (Janet Shea) and scandalous showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Cate Reymond).
The concert format offered a pleasure not unlike listening to a radio drama, in that the action took place in each listener's mind. The cast was dressed formally. A full orchestra, under the baton of Steven Edwards, was in the pit. And a huge background of projected stage directions allowed one to "watch" the story. The cast (under Kris Shaw's direction) gave strong, compelling performances. If you are a fan of the modern Broadway almost-opera that almost deals with deep themes, you could not have asked for a better show.
As you can tell by the last sentence, I am not. There is something about the imaginative world that is conjured up in Ragtime: The Musical that, for all its surface charm and high ambitions, leaves me cold. I like light opera, but I have a hard time with opera lite. The true heart of this show is not in ragtime -- that valiantly upbeat and reticent music that refuses to openly acknowledge the tragedy it carries deep in its soul. The true heart of this show is in the numerous tumescent ballads of hope and despair that, in exactly the opposite manner than ragtime, overstate their case. For me, it's the difference between rhetoric and poetry. For me! Everyone else in the audience clearly loved the show.-->