Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Most Stray Dog big productions seem to be played on tall, vertical sets (Sweeney Todd and Rocky Horror are recent examples), but here we need something like Cinemascope or Todd-AO 70mm film to capture E.L. Doctorow's sweeping 1975 novel adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally. And the set, by David Blake, obliges: like a great old bridge itself, this span has an epic feel. But who will cross over, and who gets left behind, is a story of race and classthough not entirely a hopeless one.
In fact, the style of this 1996 show set in the early 20th century, and the soulful purity of its protagonists, seems to exist separate and apart from the cruelties of their narrative. Even in its broad polemics, there's no enslavement to bitterness in its historical pleas for social justice, from Emma Goldman (Laura Kyro), or Booker T. Washington (Terry Lee Watkins, Jr.), or Mother's Younger Brother (Jon Bee). In its optimism and brutality, it is essentially American, even today. The score, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is bracing and intriguing, giving us a glimpse of a confounding new century unfolding before the population of the play. It's almost as if "ragtime" itself is keeping these characters going, when all else fails.
Kay Love, who's played at least half of all the major female roles in American musicals around town in the last 25 years, quietly manages the stage as Mother. It's a performance of solemn heart and strength, professionally sung. Mother discovers a newborn baby in her gardenleading the "white cast" to mix unexpectedly with the "black cast." Father (Phil Leveling) has just left for the North Pole, and his absence opens the door to the troubled romance of Sarah and Coalhouse Walker Jr., played by Evan Addams and Omega Jones. Both are beautifully innocent and starkly tormented by turns, throughout. And Mr. Leveling's Father manages to be both stern and likable, in spite of the open racism of the period.
There are plenty of funny spots too: a wise-guy tribute to old-time baseball by the men's chorus; and Mother's bemused note of dismay at her young son's knowledge of the worldJoe Webb is startlingly matter of fact, in his prescience, as the Little Boy. And any moment with Jeffrey M. Wright on stage keeps the show buoyant: as Tateh, he is the charming immigrant who cuts artistic silhouettes, with his beloved daughter (Avery Smith) in tow.
It's the biggest cast ever for Stray Dog Theatre, but somehow they all swirl and strut together in free-flowing arrangements for all of this grand, overwhelming event. You can see why Ragtime could run into trouble when producers have to pay a full orchestra, and union wages for up to 26 actorsbut here it's quite wonderful to see what you can do with a romantic little band, three pianos, and a highly seasoned cast of local actors, all in perfect visual harmony thanks to Mr. Been, with the undeniably artistic choreography of Mike Hodges, and the musical guidance of Jennifer Buchheit.
It is a virtually perfect show, licensed as Ragtime Version 2, and described by this production's dramaturge (Sarajane Alverson) as a bit more of a "concert version" than the original.
Through August 19, 2017, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, St. Louis, MO 63104. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance)