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Max Morath: Ragtime and Again

Theatre Review by Jonathan Frank

It can be argued that the first truly American form of popular music was 'ragtime.' Or, as Ira Gershwin so eloquently put it, "the real American folk song is a rag." Ragtime (called 'ragged time' in its infancy due to its syncopating of the rhythms, thus running them ragged) is basically what happened when pure European musical formats received a badly needed infusion of African blood and rhythms in the latter part of the 19th century.

Out of this highly infectious, and remarkably current, musical format sprang the sounds of Tin Pan Alley, jazz, rock, hip-hop, rap; in short every form of American popular music with the possible exception of New Age and Boy Bands. Since the great ragtime revival of the 70s (spearheaded by the movie The Sting and its Scott Joplin inspired score), Max Morath has been preaching the word of ragtime through various Off-Broadway and touring shows. His most recent, Max Morath: Ragtime and Again, is currently transforming the York Theatre into a mini ragtime concert hall.

Surrounded by panels depicting some of the great ragtime artists and writers (or at least those for whom photographs could be found), Morath presents a show that is part history lesson, part concert, part stand-up comedy routine and part cabaret that uses ragtime as a springboard to provide a commentary on society as filtered through and influenced by a form of music that is as much about tension as it is about beauty.

A brilliant pianist, Morath is remarkably adept and capturing the flavors and styles of the various ragtime composers/players, most of whom where in their late teens when they were creating the form. Thus, the audience is able to compare a piece by Eubie Blake(the highly percussive "Charleston Rag") with the more melodic and thoughtful works by the grandfather of the genre, Scott Joplin ("The Entertainer" and "Sweet Syncopation"). He is at his best, however, when he brings his own style to the show. His fusion of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (which resolved the problematic lyric imagery of "Swanee River played in ragtime" through a delightful example on how anything can be turned into a rag) is fresh and engaging. Likewise, a version of Joplin's "The Entertainer" that contains lyrics and a counterpoint melody written by Morath provides the highlight of the evening, as it is not only highly original, but acts as a rag cousin to Peter Allen's "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage."

The show does have its problems. Clocking in an over two hours in length, some trimming could and should occur and its focus could be tightened as Morath has a tendency to stray from the topic at hand, namely ragtime and its influences on society and visa versa. A poem/short story by Robert W. Service on the evils of cigarettes not only strays far from the path of ragtime, but comes across as sermonizing and preaching. Overall, however, Ragtime and Again is a highly entertaining and informative look at a musical genre that is arguably America's greatest contribution to music.

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Max Morath: Ragtime and Again
Through March 14
The York Theatre , 619 Lexington Avenue at 54th
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444