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America, Set to Music

The ArtsTheater Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a ragtime pianist brimming with confidence and plans for the future

by Diane Arieff

June 19, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Coalhouse Walker Jr.
(Brian Stokes Mitchell),
a ragtime pianist brimming
with confidence and plans
for the future

America, Set to Music

By Diane Arieff Zaga, Arts Editor

Broadway-

bound

'Ragtime'

reaches

deep

into the

heart of

Doctorow's

novel and

pulls out

a rousing,

epic musical

After the countless ads, fluff pieces and an advance press packet thick enough to choke a horse, the question hung in the celebrity-studded lobby of the Shubert Theatre last Sunday evening: Could "Ragtime" pull it off?

The answer is a resounding yes. Fans of "big" musicals who may have been unmoved by the direction the genre has taken in recent years will be heartened by "Ragtime," a sweeping and ambitious $10 million production with a soul. Librettist Terrence McNally, director Frank Galati, musical composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens have created an epic musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel that places its stirring, human-scale narrative front and center.

The syncopated music made famous by Scott Joplin is the show's central metaphor -- marking the beginning of a new century humming with energy and the promise of big changes to come.

"Ragtime" begins in 1906, and the entire company is on stage for the stylish and rousing opening number that sets the scene: It was the music of something beginning/ an era exploding/ a century spinning in riches and rags/ and in rhythm and rhyme. The people called it Ragtime...."

It's a smartly staged introduction to the three narrative strands that constitute the story. The gentry of New Rochelle, dressed in costume designer Santo Loquasto's creamy Victorian whites and twirling lacy parasols, sings sweetly of their America, a smugly romantic place destined for a rude awakening. Their world was an affluent WASP idyll where, "there were no Negroes or immigrants...."

Suddenly, the African-American members of the cast twirl to the foreground, dancing with defiant joy to the syncopated new rhythms of rag, determined to bust loose into a new age. Both groups are then joined by a gaggle of immigrants. Jews in shtreimels and beards, babushkas and shawls, rush warily to center stage, only to huddle uncertainly in the middle. They glance back and forth between the black and white ensembles, which square off and face each other in a dance buzzing with tension and the threat of conflict. It's a compressed, evocative tableau of American history, and one of many pleasurable moments in the play when Graciela Daniele's inventive choreography adds dramatic punch to the proceedings.

Understandably, certain plot points from Doctorow's sprawling, intricate novel have been cut. Even so, this "Ragtime" is a tapestry of interweaving stories that adheres more closely to the spirit and scope of the book than Milos Forman's ponderous and lopsided film adaptation.

At the outset, "Mother," "Father," "Younger Brother" and "The Little Boy" live a charmed and bucolic life in New Rochelle. All of that is destined to change after Father (John Dossett), a pompous and hidebound traditionalist, leaves with Admiral Peary for a yearlong expedition to the North Pole. In his absence, the heatedly idealistic Younger Brother finds that his walloping juvenile crush on vaudeville sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit metamorphoses into a passion for radical justice, sparked by the fiery rhetoric of anarchist Emma Goldman one night in Union Square.

Meanwhile, Mother (Marcia Mitzman Gaven) has taken in a young and frightened black woman and her newborn son. It is Sarah (LaChanze), on the run from a failed romance with the handsome Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell). Coalhouse, a ragtime pianist brimming with confidence and plans for the future, is unaware of the birth of his child and determined to find his lost love. After they reunite in all-white New Rochelle, Coalhouse takes to visiting Sarah at Mother's house every Sunday, driving there in his beloved new Model-T Ford. The weekly specter of "the nigger" in his gleaming automobile, however, infuriates the men of the town's largely Irish volunteer fire department. Seething with hatred, they destroy Coalhouse's car, setting the story's tragedy in motion.

Back in the city, the immigrant Tateh (John Rubinstein) and The Little Girl (Danielle Weiner) are trying to scrabble out an existence on the teeming Lower East Side. A struggling artist, Tateh cuts out silhouettes for a nickel apiece. But as he and his daughter sink deeper into poverty, his dream of life in the goldene medina rapidly darkens into a relentless nightmare. They flee New York, get caught up in a violent labor strike in a Massachusetts mill town, and finally find salvation through Tateh's little handmade "movie books," crude cutout images that seem to move as one flips the pages. After the books become a modest hit, Tateh invents a primitive film projector and scores success in the early movie business as director "Baron Ashkenazi."

It's a daunting mosaic of a plot, but McNally and company prove themselves up to the challenge. The real-life historical figures who peppered the original narrative -- Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and escapologist Harry Houdini -- are used artfully here, both as metaphors of an age and as bits of our collective past come to life. Only Evelyn Nesbit (Susan Wood), whose celebrity as "the girl on the swing" was sealed after her millionaire husband murdered her lover, architect Stanford White, fails to become a meaningful thread in this tapestry. Instead, she remains a free-floating bit of camp history, never resonating on a deeper level.

"Ragtime" producer Garth Drabinsky held exhaustive Los Angeles auditions for the cast, and, by and large, it's a solid and able company.

The elegant Mitchell, a charismatic baritone who soars in his role as Coalhouse, is the sole holdover from the Toronto production. He infuses the doomed hero with feline grace and stiff-necked nobility. Coalhouse was always a compelling character, even if his early optimism about America is a bit of a puzzle. In lesser hands, Coalhouse could easily ring false, a maddeningly naïve riff on the Brother from Another Planet. But Mitchell's expressive portrayal is, at once, specific and larger than life -- a metaphor for how our best hopes of America persist in spite of everything. It makes his descent into rage and despair a fall that has consequences for all of us.

Some other performances stand out. The patrician-looking Gaven is luminescent as Mother. LaChanze, in the smaller role of Sarah, is able to stir the back row of the theater with her piercing "Your Daddy's Son" and "The Wheels of a Dream." As Tateh, Rubinstein is fine in "Gliding," a bittersweet lullaby to his daughter flavored with Jewish melody. But he is most winning here as an actor. Despite his role as the archetypal immigrant, he studiously avoids any whiff of schmaltz, and is especially good in a boardwalk scene with Mother.

Flaherty's musical score is blessedly free of the forgettable segue numbers that dilute much of musical theater. Ahrens' lyrics neatly enrich the characterizations and propel the story forward with depth and style. They are moving but not manipulative -- even in numbers where the temptation to woo us with false sentimentality may have been great. "He Wanted to Say," "Back to Before" and "Till We Reach That Day," an aching anthemlike ballad against racism, are vivid cases in point.

Eugene Lee's fun and evocative set is money well spent. During the number "Success," J.P. Morgan strides self-importantly along a catwalk that slowly descends to crush the hopeful plebes below. In a memorable Ellis Island scene that looks like a sepia photo come to life, bedraggled immigrants rush forward with their documents at the ready, their hope impervious to the succession of barred gates that slam shut in front of them with each advancing step. They, like Coalhouse, Sarah and the rest, are looking for the country of their dreams. Instead, what they get in "Ragtime" is America -- "a strange new music," as powerful and dissonant today as it was a century ago.

"Ragtime" plays at the Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. It closes on Sept. 7. Tickets are available at the theater box office or by calling (800) 447-7400.

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