REVIEW: “Ragtime” at the Mac-Haydn Theatre

by Lisa Jarisch

As a former librarian, I  am almost always wont to pronounce “the book was better” or “read the book” when presented with a film or stage adaptation of a printed or published work. And like thousands of readers, I devoured E.L. Doctrow’s best seller of 1975 and extolled its virtues to anyone looking for the next best read. Something about the story of 3 American families, of white, black, and Jewish heritage, clearly resonated with a large segment of the population who kept the title on many a best seller list for many a week.

 

Now, having been absolutely gobsmacked by the Mac-Haydn‘s premiere presentation of Ragtime: The Musical, I may be forced to revise my position on the superiority of the printed word and grant that a live theatre production quite possibly can, and in the case of the Mac’s production, does exceed the published work.  Earlier this season, I predicted Sunset Boulevard would be the Crown Jewel of their season, and without taking away any of the accolades justly due that production, Ragtime has usurped the throne, and takes the crown for its own.

 

 In any format, Ragtime is a work of epic proportion.  Its dichotomous themes of rich and poor, tolerance and prejudice, reality and illusion, justice and revenge, are no less timely, thought-provoking, and occasionally may I say disturbing, today than they were in both 1975 and during the early 20th century period of America in which the work is set. Consequently any production calls for big sets, big music,  and most importantly big performances. With its first-ever presentation of Ragtime, Mac-Haydn delivers on every level. With directorial skill as magical as the  escapes and feats “performed” by Harry Houdini throughout the show, John Saunders has outdone himself with a production that entrances, entertains, intrigues, and even occasionally disturbs the audience. 

 

Even without the gift of foresight or precognition, you know that as the first notes of  ragtime music swirl through the theatre, the lives and fortunes of the characters are destined to collide, clash, and eventually coalesce.  For just under 3 hours, the audience will watch the weaving of a tapestry that represents the melting pot of America, home to the complacent, well-off white upper class as well as including, initially on the fringes, the African American population of Harlem.  This America is also a point of light shining in the distance, serving as beacon for the immigrants seeking a new and better life for the, and the children they bring with them.

 

“Prologue—Ragtime” presages the journey and the conflicts to come, as 3 seemingly disparate groups present themselves for our attention. With a swirling, circular rhythm, the stage fills with characters sharing the same space but not (yet) entwined and intermingled.  Literally into the spotlight appear the white upper-crust and upper -class New Rochelle family of Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Grandfather and Little Boy, multiple citizens of Harlem led by the talented ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr , and the Jewish immigrant Tateh and his Little Girl daughter who reach the shores of American seeking a life better than the one they left behind.   Sprinkled throughout the opening are historical figures of the time: Harry Houdini..Booker T. Washington….J.P. Morgan….Emma Goldman…Henry Ford.. . Evelyn Nesbit…all of whom will enter the lives and dreams of the main characters , forcing them to connect, clash, unite and otherwise engage with each other with consequences sometimes joyful, sometimes tragic, but always mirroring the rippling movement of promise and progress sweeping the country.           

 

And so.next, we begin to learn more about the principle players of the piece.   As “Mother, “ Rachel Rhodes-Devey gives a beautiful portrayal of a woman who transforms from the dutiful, early 20th century Stepford wife shackled to home and hearth,  to a woman not only discovering her place in the world–and her right to it—but defining   her identity and self-worth and strength as an individual—with no man required. Fortunately for plot and character development, “Father” heads off on a expedition with Admiral Peary to the North Pole as both the show and the century begin.

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When Mother discovers a newborn black baby “buried” in her garden, she starts down the path to enlightenment as she ponders “What Kind of Woman” would deal with such a find. With a vocal performance capturing every nuance of the struggle Mother faces, Rhodes-Devey brings veracity and depth to the role, as she gives beautiful true voice to her journey . From an initial sense of panic and desperation as she struggles to cope without a husband to guide her, to the realization that she is fully capable of making the decision to take the child, and his mother Sarah, into her home and eventually her heart, Rhodes-Devey’s Mother epitomizes the “coming of age” of many a white woman of the time.  Throughout the show, singular moments capture her growing awareness of both the rights and wrongs in her world —the white woman defiantly clutching a black baby literally to her heart, offering a black man not only entry to her home but sharing a glass of tea with him, sharing a conversation with an immigrant stranger to make up for her son Little Boy’s initial appalling lack of manners. She combines an almost ethereal fragility with a soon-to-be-discovered spine of steel. All Rhodes-Devey’s numbers throughout the show are strong, pure, and moving, but perhaps none more so than her paean to embracing her freedom as a free-thinking woman with the riveting “Back to Before” , delivering this ultimate declaration of independence and proclamation of emancipation with true star power, pathos and passion.

 

As Coalhouse Walker, Jr.–Harlem musician, father of Sarah’s baby, and passionate suitor determined to win back his Sarah, Tyrell Reggins steps onto the stage with all the majestic, dignified presence the role demands, and matches it with a voice that echoes off the rafters of the Mac’s barn-cum-theatre. The sheer joy with which he offers up “His name was Coalhouse Walker” and “Getting Ready Rag” has not only the cast but the audience stomping their feet, clapping hands, and swiveling their hips to the “new” ragtime music. 

 

As Coalhouse pursues, persists and ultimately triumphs in his determination to attain his heart’s desire –the love of the  beautiful Sarah– Reggins seems to physically grow in stature and in presence, as he swells with pride over his good fortune. “Wheels of a Dream”, his duet with Sarah, as the two reunited lovers share their hopes for their future together with their son, at the dawn of  new century of promise, provides a signature moment in any production, and Reggins and Maya Cuevas make this number their own.

 

     Sadly, that  longed-for future is not be realized, and the dream is shattered too soon. Not only does Coalhouse suffer more mockery, scorn, racial injustice and derision at the hands of Emerald Isle fireman, whom he has previously encountered during his search and courting of Sarah in the virtually “white-only” neighborhood of New Rochelle, but his beloved  Model T car is destroyed by the firehouse gang led and egged on by the bigoted Will Conklin (Jonah Hale). Conklin, outraged that a black man should own and drive his own car, spews a vitriolic diatribe liberally laced with “the N word” before destroying Coalhouse’s pride and joy. The loss not just of his car, but of any shred of respect and dignity to which he is humanly and humanely entitled spurs Coalhouse to his own levels of outrage, vowing to find “Justice” but alas, the system has none to offer him. Watching Reggins begin to seethe and swell with outrage for the way he, as a black man, is being mistreated and virtually denied justice or attention of any kind, is heartbreaking and chilling. His demeanor, his carriage, his facial expressions all mirror the growing anger and despair that  ultimately will lead him to a violent end.

 

And  then, as might be expected–tragedy strikes.  Sarah, determined to help right the wrongs perpetrated against Coalhouse,  is mistaken, by J.P. Morgan, no less, for a would-be assassin at a political campaign rally…and is beaten to death. There was more than one audible gasp from the house at the graphically-staged moment, which I chose to interpret as a sign that  “they get it”– a moment the audience had total injustice and inequality and tragedy thrust upon them just as harshly and unfairly and strongly as it is for Sarah, and Coalhouse, and all the members of the Black community. As Act 1 concludes, that community mourns Sarah’s loss, and express their common grief and anger with a haunting, heart-rending  “Till we reach that day” lament that leaves the audience in momentary silence as the lights fade to total darkness. 

 

  Coalhouse  is left a bereaved, bitter, enraged man now bent on gaining revenge under the guise of justice for the losses he has suffered, and he resorts to violence and terror in the New Rochelle community where Mother has taken Sarah’s child into her home. Reggins brings Coalhouse’s rage to the fore with ever-increasing intensity, until a series of choices leads him to  a last-ditch desperate effort to find justice for Sarah by taking over J.P. Morgan’s library. Thanks to the oratorical efforts of Booker T. Washington, played with conviction and a believable earnestness by William Taitel, Coalhouse comes to the realization that continued violence will do nothing to advance the cause of justice and equality, and moreover, is not the legacy he wants to leave his son.  His final instructions to his supporters, who have joined him in his quest for revenge and justice, is “Make Them Hear you,”. Not a false note comes from this impressive performer throughout the show, but from the depths of his soul comes this final gut-wrenching plea that rivals the high bar set by Brian Stokes Mitchell, the original Coalhouse Walker in the Broadway production. As the last notes fade, Coalhouse walks out to face his fate with the same dignity and personal pride he brought to the Tempo Club in Harlem where we were first introduced.

 

Maya Cuevas is a Sarah entirely deserving of Coalhouse’s devotion and commitment.  This is a role that demands a performer who can not only hold her own with the vocal numbers, but can bring Sarah to life with virtually no dialogue.  Cuevas has the gift. While there is not a miscast role in this production, or less than fully-committed performance, in Cuevos surely we see the break-out star of the season.  Her Sarah is by turns broken, poignant, desperate, heartbreaking, defiant, joyous and enraged, and she plays out each emotion with skill and subtlety. And her vocals…. Oh, her vocals !  “Your Daddy’s son” held the opening night audience in thrall, as she gave glorious voice to the anguish, pain, despair and torment of a woman forced to make a terrible choice. As previously mentioned, she matches Reggins note for note in “ Wheels of a Dream.”   Audra McDonald, Broadway’s original Sarah, would be proud.

According to Cuevos’ program bio, she is “Expected” to graduate from the Hartt School in 2020, and I would expect that the ONLY possible reason she might not achieve that distinction would be if she were recruited for a regional or touring company before collecting her diploma. Let’s hope she becomes a returning artist at the Mac for many a year to come.

 

Mac-Haydn perennial favourite, and admittedly a personal one as well, Gabe Belyeu adds another remarkable performance to his repertoire as Tateh, the Jewish immigrant and fiercely protective father of Little Girl, whose rise from a simple seller of silhouettes to maker of movies reflects a rags to riches story dreamt of by so many immigrants as they made their way to America. Periodically crossing paths with Mother, Tateh is caught up in pivotal moments in history, experiencing labor strikes, racial injustice, violence and ultimately articulating his own American dream when he and Mother acknowledge their friendship turning to more in the lovely “Our Children.” 

Belyeu always delivers solid, defined and personalized performances, taking a character and giving it his own unique style. In Ragtime, his interactions with Clementine Kline, as the Little Girl, aka Tateh’s daughter, are charming and heartfelt; he plays the fiercely protective father with aplomb and a real sense of care for the No Name child he cherishes. As the up and coming—and entirely self-created–moviemaker Baron Ashkenazy, Belyeu delights in romping through “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay Inc” , bringing a much needed touch of humor and lightness to the increasingly dark and heavy moments played out on stage.

In essential supporting roles, Steve Hassmer as Father, Julie Galorenzo as the anarchist and political activist Emma Goldman, and Kylan Ross as Younger Brother all have their moments crucial to the plot, and each perform their role with assurance and veracity. As Little Boy/Edgar, 11 year old Paxton Brownell takes the stage with the assurance of a veteran performer, and Clementine Kline plays her Little Girl role so well that you desperately want to reach out yourself and take her to a safe, warm home full of promise and love. Fortunately Tateh will ultimately provide that very dream for her.

 

Mac-Haydn notes that for this first-ever production of Ragtime, they have assembled the largest biggest cast ion its in-the-round stage, and without exception, this is a cast in its entirety that clearly not only recognizes the significance  of the subject matters it addresses, but gives each and every moment and number the reverence and respect they deserve. Particularly effective in their roles are William Taitel as the activist Booker T. Washington, striving to bring the voice of reason into increasingly unreasonable situations, and Sarah Kawalek as Evelyn Nesbit, the “Girl on the Swing” who was thrust, or more accurately thrust herself, into notoriety following the “Crime of the Century” when her husband murdered her wealthy lover. As Harry Houdini, Andrew Burton Kelley appears in and out of the chains he magically unfetters; his connection with Little Boy adds intriguing moments of prescience and mysticism.

Sebastiano Romagnolo choreographs for Ragtime, and once again he continues to put his signature style on full and brilliant display.  From the foot-stomping, jubilant ragtime musical numbers to the rally-turned riot “The Night that Emma Goldman spoke at Union Square”  and everything in-between, Romagnolo puts this huge, youthful cast through their paces with precision and perfection. Every dance step, every hand gesture, every turn and movement is as sharp, as soft, as fluid, as it should be. At times the round stage pulses and pounds and throbs, almost threatening to burst or collapse from the movement, but  that only adds to the authenticity of the piece, reflecting the swelling population pounding the pavements, strolling the beaches, and otherwise inserting themselves into the new family portrait of America.

Jimm Halliday has costumed the show to perfection, and with a cast as large as this, and with the almost uncountable costume changes as the ensemble doubles, triples and probably even quadruples in portraying the assortment of supporting characters, that is no mean feat. Every costume is as unique as the character who wears it, and yet Halliday creates a cohesive  and authentic look for the entire production. From the opening number onward, Halliday’s deft hand with fashion and period costuming is on display in all its deserving glory. The light, ethereal, airy costuming in tones of white and softest lace and linen perfectly captures the soon-to-be shattered innocence of the New Rochelle suburbanites, while the Harlem dwellers in  red and black tones personify the pulsing, tinkling notes of the new Ragtime music taking hold. The opening of Act 2 is a lovely nod, or homage, to the classic Bob Mackie style, with variations of black and white making a statement as much about the changing racial climate as about fashion choices. 

On a technical side note….given the rapidity and frequency with which characters enter and exit, one can’t help but wonder how many dressers may be lurking behind the scenes to assist with the costume changes. A shout-out to those unsung heroes…

Matthew Oliver’s hair and make-up design also strikes perfect notes, again not an easy task with so many cast members requiring so many specialized looks to capture the essence of the characters.

While its themes of discrimination, prejudice, intolerance, injustice make it almost uncomfortable to watch at times, this a glorious production in every respect, and deserves the attention and the applause of a full house for every performance. It is perhaps a consummation devoutly to be wished that certain of our current national leaders and those in positions of leadership and policy could be exposed to the power of this production of Ragtime, in hopes they would learn and heed the lessons so powerfully and forcefully portrayed. Frankly, we are perhaps all the better for having our complacency a little shaken, our norms a little questioned, our darker side a little exposed, delivered in the guise of a stunning musical experience.

Ragtime with book by Terrance McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynne Aherns continues at the Mac-Haydn Theatre  from July 25 through August 4. Directed by Producing Artistic Director John Saunders, choreography by Sebastiani Romagnolo, music direction by David Maglione. costumes by Jim Halliday, scenic and lighting design Andrew Gmoser, props by Joshua Gallagher. Sound design by Corbin White, hair and make-up design Matthew Oliver. CAST: Rachel Rhodes-Devey as Mother, Tyrell Reggins as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Maya Cuevas as Sarah, Gabe Belyeu as Tateh, Kylan Ross as Younger Brother, Steve Hassmer as Father, Alecsys Proctor-Turner as Sarah’s Friend, Todd Fenstermaker as Grandpa, Clementine Kline as The Little Girl, Paxton Brownell as The Little Boy, William Taitel as Booker T. Washington, Sarah Kawalek as Evelyn Nesbit, Andrew Burton Kelley as Harry Houdini, Julie Galorenzo as Emma Goldman. The show runs 2 hours and 45 minutes with 1intermission. http://www.machaydntheatre.org/

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