Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Also see Bob's review of Sleuth
And if you can survive act one of this (nearly) three hour stereoscope, act two certainly has its charms. In that first half, the actors call-out the story to the audience like newsboys selling papers, and cake-walking dancers with parasols trudge through scenes as though they were quickly receding into the two-dimensionality of a very old photograph. But with the incredible Renae Adams as the leading lady and Janessa Morgan as her troubled young black maid (and with the openly narcissistic Shaun Hudson as the maid's lover) there is no shortage of splendid solos. Renae Adams is a time-traveling singer/actress from the 30th century, when genetic engineering will create a brilliantly talented race of super-performers (or, so one is forced to conclude, after watching her jaw-dropping turn in this show). I'd really rather watch her for three hours, all alone, just performing song after song.
Sarah the maid has just given birth to a son for Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Mr. Hudson), bringing the action home to Mother (Ms. Adams) and to her family of New Rochelle xenophobes. But when Coalhouse follows Sarah out to the country to woo her, and starts singing (to her, or about her), he can never bring himself to acknowledge her presence right next to him: always singing straight out to the audience, as if inviting us to rise to our feet and throw bouquets. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "Star Eyes" and should not be encouraged, no matter how good a singer or performer he (or anyone) may be. His story in act one should be (mainly) about his love for Sarah, and not about his relationship with his reflection in the mirror, as director Himes has made it. Many of the performers here play "straight-out," but only one or two can really pull it off. It makes for a very chilly on-stage ambience.
Sarah meets a violent death (which, strangely for this story, does not seem to be race-related), and Mr. Hudson's Model T is vandalized (most assuredly by white racists). And it is the wounding of his pride, by the humiliating damage done to his car, that prompts him to threaten to burn down a library? As slap-dash and inconsequential as this may seem, Mr. Hudson's Coalhouse does manage to become a figure of admirable torment and passion, thanks to director Himes' guidance. Simultaneously, our estimation of the actor skyrockets. And yet, when the ghost of his beloved Sarah appears in act two, he still can't bring himself to give her a second glance, and he goes back to wooing the audience.
So, let's review, briefly: A black man, who plays piano in a juke joint, fathers a child out of wedlock, and is content to let a white family bear the burden of raising that child. He continues to tool around New York City in a very spiffy new car, and his girlfriend is killed when she goes looking for help. And somehow, this fellow (with the improbable name of "Coalhouse") is more upset about his car than the loss of his beloved girlfriend? And perfectly content not to take custody of his son? And then prepares to burn down a library, a house of learning and literacy? And how, precisely, is this NOT the most awful stereotype put before the viewing public since the tyrannical white actor in blackface, in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation? I can't blame Mr. Hudson, who is young and apparently hasn't acquired the nuance that comes with maturity. And director Himes is clearly overwhelmed, carrying the crushing burden of a giant show on his back. But book-writer Terrence McNally and original novelist E.L. Doctorow, you should be ashamed of yourselves.
But I digress. The very accomplished Jonathan Foresythe stands up nicely to the extremely high standard set by Ms. Adams (as his wife), and Peter Winfrey is very good as her younger brother, filled with bomb-throwing fervor by the racial hatred he has witnessed.
Likewise, Micah Herstand, as Jewish immigrant Tateh, seems merely cloying in act one, but grows far more interesting and likable once he falls into the morally dubious movie industry in act two. Clearly, some artists respond quite well to the forces of corruption. Before that, Mr. Herstand grins like a Halloween pumpkin, to express the immigrant's joy at arriving in the New World, until you'd just like to slap some sense into him. After that intermission, though, he becomes quite impressive. Again, kudos to director Ron Himes for drawing a contrast between acts. Too bad the characters can't develop as quickly as Polaroids, though.
Mr. Foresythe is very enjoyable as Father, taking his young (and unaccountably precognitive) son to a baseball game, and expressing shock at the loss of elegance in the sport. David Blake is excellent as a wickedly racist fire chief in New York's volunteer brigade, and Barry Cordes is funny and polished as the grandfather of the white household (and quite good later as the District Attorney). A whole bevy of historical figures is also brought on in a hopeless bid to add significance and nobility, including the fine Daniel Davis as Houdini, Catherine Morton as a scandalous entertainer, and Malcolm Foley as an almost unbearably saintly Booker T. Washington in the soporific book scenes.
Many of the group songs are dull, in the hands of a disinterested chorus; and the horn section in the band is just deadly (the music and lyrics are by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens). The show won four second-tier Tonys during its original 834 performances on Broadway, but when you take a huge, sprawling period piece like this (or like Titanic, for example) out to the colleges and regional theaters, you inevitably lose a lot of professional gloss, not to mention millions of dollars in the budget. From here on out, some cutting will be crucial to making Ragtime fly without all that help, though at present, the rights-holders haven't quite found their pruning shears yet.
Through November 1, 2009 at the Edison Theater at Washington University, between Skinker and Big Bend Blvds. For information call (314) 935-6543 or visit www.metrotix.com online.