In his nasally young-boy voice, a young boy reads aloud for his mother as she works in the garden in her Gibson Girl whites. She listens quietly to the dull letter from her husband, who’s away on an arctic exploration, until suddenly her face goes slack and pale and she sends her son for the maid as she frantically scoops dirt off the newborn baby she’s just found, buried but mercifully alive.
This is the moment when Ragtime, a mammoth musical now playing in a stripped-down production at the 5th Avenue, comes to life—when Mother, frustrated matriarch of a WASPy family in New Rochelle, NY, discovers the abandoned baby of Sarah, a washerwoman, and her erstwhile lover, Harlem jazz pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. “Each day the maids trudge up the hill, the hired help arrives/I never stopped to think they might have lives beyond our lives,” Mother sings, before announcing her decision to take both Sarah and her baby into her home and heretofore separate worlds start melting together.
These personal moments are crucial in Ragtime, a sprawling historical pastiche of a show, adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, set in volatile, turn-of-the-20th-century New York. The narrative heart comprises three characters’ intersecting lives: Mother (Kendra Kassebaum), Coalhouse (Douglas Lyons) and Tateh (Joshua Carter), a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, who arrived in the Lower East Side with his little girl. Surrounding these imagined characters, each representing a population straining against an oppressive country and culture, are a host of real-life personalities, such as Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford and Evelyn Nesbit, one of America’s first tabloid celebrities.
Ragtime began as a grand affair—the cast of the show’s 1998 Broadway premiere numbered nearly 50. This version, which premiered last year at Theatre Latté Da in Minneapolis created and was directed by TLD artistic director Peter Rothstein, features a cast of 17, a small company tasked with creating a full, rich portrait of a country, and three vibrant individual communities—Black, white and immigrant—circling one another warily. The stripped-down version totally works: The direction is deft and clever and occasionally adds some interesting nuance by using the diverse cast as an all-purpose ensemble in this otherwise racially segregated show. But it also removes much of the raw power and delicate filigree that make this show so gorgeous, a stark feeling compounded by the size of the 5th Avenue despite copious amplification and upward-facing lighting that fills the space with huge shadows and silhouettes (lighting design by Duane Schuler).
This cast of talented utility players handled their endless quick changes and perpetual onstage motion with grace and the vocal challenges of the luscious, eclectic score with ease. Joshua Carter’s Tateh is charming and honest, alternating between determined optimism for his child and compounding fury toward his adopted country, always beautifully sung. Kassebaum is fabulously cast as Mother, a woman finding an identity outside her home and husband, and Danyel Fulton brought a lovely, delicate desperation to Sarah’s lullaby, “Your Daddy’s Son,” one of Ragtime’s undisputed musical masterpieces. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lauren Du Pree’s glorious solo on act one closer “Till We Get to Heaven.”
With these many narratives braiding together, it’s important that each storyline feels distinct, consistent and necessary, rather than like period-appropriate set-dressing—a challenge made even more difficult when constantly re-using actors. Many smaller scenes, like that set on a Henry Ford assembly line or in Evelyn Nesbit’s vaudeville theatre, feel sluggish, and some performances veered into the cartoonish, as though the actors didn’t trust more a vulnerable performance to fill the 5th’s huge house.
Mother’s Younger Brother (Matthew Kacergis) searches for meaning, first in unrequited love and later in revolutionary labor politics, inspired by Emma Goldman (Andi Alhadeff). Their shared number “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” has always been one of my favorites, and as delivered here the stakes were baffling, thanks in large part to fuzzy amplification that buried much of the song’s rapid patter. Lyons’ charisma as Coalhouse captured the audience in the show’s first act, but more stillness would have brought power and evolution to his later scenes, as a man consumed by cold fury in pursuit of justice. Most disappointing, the titanic emotional journey of Coalhouse and Sarah’s relationship was muddied in the show’s constant string of crescendos, each given equal weight, tempo and significance and blending into a kind of musical soup.
Without clear arcs and electric acting, Ragtime can start to feel like a musical about history (yech) or a trip through the It’s a Small World ride of 19-aughts America. This is why the central relationships are so important: Without a human arc in the midst of all this painful growth and inevitable change, what can we hang on to? A bizarrely, excruciatingly slow processional exit at the end of Act One was telling, and focused the show squarely its own importance, rather than on telling us a story.
Of course, there are plenty of connections to make between 2017 America and the America of Ragtime, even more so than 20 years ago. The country remains violently racist, oppressive of women and merciless toward immigrants. But focusing on a show’s modern parallels is as pointless a review choice as it is a programming choice. Great shows can be relevant no matter how closely they hew or don’t to the current cultural climate, and without an emotionally honest center, no show is great.