New Staging of Ragtime Brings Paper Mill Season To Triumphant Conclusion
Also see Bob's review of Merry Wives of Windsor
Set among various historical events during the years soon after the dawn of the twentieth century, Ragtime depicts the convergence of the lives of three very different families. One is the privileged WASP family of Father, a successful small manufacturer living in a beautiful new hilltop house in New Rochelle. The second consists of Tateh, a widowed Eastern European Jewish immigrant artist, and his daughter, who are living in dire poverty. The third family is headed by Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist, but more importantly for our story, a proud and charismatic black man. Coalhouse is horrendously abused by a group of common bigots, setting off a series of events which are the centerpiece of this musical.
The fact that the Paper Mill production is a “reconceived” version of director Stafford Arima’s “minimalist” London production has caused some anxiety among those following the fortunes of both Paper Mill and Ragtime. Could such a “cut down” version serve the authors’ grand scale vision? It is a pleasure to report that the shifts in tone created by Arima have made for a more consistently involving and deeply moving production than the estimable one which was presented on Broadway.
Minimalist is a somewhat deceptive word with which to describe the Paper Mill Ragtime. Yes, the large sets which were dictated by Broadway’s behemoth Ford Center are gone. Even with the series of 14 frosted panels emitting various colors and designs, and the bridge (similar to the Broadway original) spanning the width of the stage toward the rear and other small scenic effects, there is a considerable resemblance here to a black box production (the example which comes most readily to mind is the representation of Coalhouse’s Model-T by two straight-backed wooden chairs joined together side by side). However, the expansive staging, elaborate lighting, vibrant cast of 28, and the 19-piece orchestra are anything but minimal.
More to the point, Ragtime now plays like a concept musical about our country’s difficult and continuing quest to achieve the American promise of equality, opportunity and brotherhood among a diverse citizenry. It begins with Mother, Coalhouse and Tateh warily circling one another and then breaking away to return to their respective ethnic groups, and it ends with the family circle of Mother (and her son), Tateh (and his daughter) and Little Coalhouse.
With his darker, more dramatic staging, Arima has created a strong overall arc which considerably strengthens the second act. The first act has always been sublime. In the Broadway production, despite its essential excellence, the second act lacked cohesiveness and was a bit of a letdown. At Paper Mill, there is a satisfying unity to the entire work which particularly strengthens the effectiveness of the second act.
A prime example of the manner in which this is accomplished is the darker, less exuberant, choreographically shorter and more restrained approach that is taken to the song “(Let’s Get Away to) Atlantic City.” This more closely ties the song to its dramatic situation (the need for Father and Mother to get Little Coalhouse out of their besieged house in New Rochelle), and prevents it from jarring us out of the dark tone of Coalhouse Walker’s situation.
Although it takes a few minutes to adjust to Arima’s stark staging, one soon adjusts to the concept, and, in the second act, the black box-like set and darker tone pay big dividends emotionally and dramatically. Nothing in this production detracts from the joy and exuberance of the story’s hopeful and triumphant interludes.
There are multiple changes throughout, including eliminated appearances by the now only referenced Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw and Houdini’s mother. The second act opening (Harry Houdini) has been moved and the pas de deux preceding “Sarah Brown Eyes” is out. However, this approximately 2 hour and 45 minute production never feels truncated or incomplete.
Quentin Earl Darrington plays Coalhouse Walker with grace, dignity and passion. His performance builds in power throughout the evening, culminating in a heartfelt, stirring and powerfully sung “Make Them Hear You.” Kenita R. Miller is an appealing Sarah. At the opening performance, her singing of “Your Daddy’s Son” lacked the power and accuracy necessary to maximize its effect. However, in her later duet with Darrington, the stirring and lyrical “Wheels of a Dream”, both were in fine fettle.
Rachel York lovingly depicts the growing joy and ease which Mother acquires as she blossoms into an independent, strong-willed woman of firm, humanist principal. York sings strongly and accurately throughout, displaying Mother’s tentative feelings at the outset in “Goodbye My Love” and “What Kind of Woman,” and strong and powerful ones in her second act anthem, “(We Can Never Go) Back to Before.” David Hess gives a three dimensional quality to the hidebound Father by carefully delineating Father’s cluelessness and not very successful attempts to overcome his prejudices. As lead singer in the rich ensemble piece “New Music,” Hess perfectly captures Father’s dilemma. Shonn Wiley is ideally cast as Mother’s Younger Brother. His transition from indolent Stage Door Johnny to radical terrorist is drawn with total conviction, and his singing is always mellifluous. Neal Benari is moving and impassioned as the immigrant Tateh. Together with Rachel York, he warmly delivers the delightfully lyrical “Our Children.”
In featured roles, strong contributions are made by Matthew Scott (Harry Houdini); Kelly J. Rucker, who as Sarah’s friend magnificently leads the heart wrenching “Till We Reach That Day”; Justin Lee Miller (Booker T. Washington); Debra Cardona (Emma Goldman); Betsy Wolfe (Evelyn Nesbitt); and Greg Stone (Willie Conklin).
Liza Gennaro’s evocative and lively choreography is perfectly in tune with Arima’s vision. Having noted the lovely coordination between the coloration of the settings and the elaborate period costumes (largely, but not exclusively, either reds, purples or pinks mixed with grays and blues), it was interesting to note the combined set and costume design credit for Robert Jones. Crucial to the look of this production is the lighting design by Mark Stanley. One visual improvement would be accomplished by the elimination of the overused dry ice smoke effects. I can only believe that the escaping smoke during the singing of “Our Children” on an Atlantic City beach was the result of a mechanical problem.
Be certain to return to your seat in time to hear the terrifically arranged entr’acte which sets the mood for the action to follow. As on Broadway, the orchestra is conducted by David Loud. It must be a joy to conduct this score with its 30 songs of uncommon beauty, rhythmic joy and stirring resonance.
None of the above is meant to suggest that in Stafford Arima’s “minimalist” production we now have the definitive Ragtime. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Arima has strengthened aspects of Ragtime significantly. And the bottom line is that the Paper Mill production of Ragtime is powerful, deeply moving and not to be missed.
Ragtime continues performances through July 17, 2005 (Evenings: Wed.-Sat. 8pm; Sun. 7:30pm/ Matinees: Thurs. & Sun. 2pm; Sat. 2:30pm – Added performance - Wed. 7/13 2PM/ no evening performance Sun. 7/17) at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ, 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org/.
Ragtime Book by Terrence McNally; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens – based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow; directed by Stafford Arima
Additional Ensemble: Adia, Allison Blackwell, Derrick Cobey, Byron J. St. Cyr