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Not Quite Back to Before by Matthew Murray

  • Ragtime1.jpgIt was impossible for the spectacular original productions of Ragtime to completely mask the fact that although the Terrence McNally–Lynn Ahrens–Stephen Flaherty show might be Great, it's not very good. So what chance do stripped-down productions, and/or those put together by artists of any but the highest professional caliber, have of making anything of this magnificent but messy musical? Eleven years after its Broadway premiere (and nine years after its closing), it's clearer than ever that the answer is "None at all." For better or worse—or, usually, for better and worse—that doesn't stop people from trying. That includes the new production from the Astoria Performing Arts Center (APAC), which is running through February 22: The company does the most it could possibly do, and it's nowhere near enough.

    Lest you think I'm judging this Off-Off-Broadway production, which was directed by Tom Wojtunik and produced on a relative shoestring (if an expensive-looking one), against the impossible standards set by the mammoth initial ones produced by Livent and directed by Frank Galati, you're correct. There's simply no other way to view this work than as an extravaganza, a shimmering banner of red-white-and-blue agitprop that charts nothing smaller than the collision of whites, blacks, and immigrants at the start of the 20th century, and requires breadth, bloat, and beauty just to stay aflutter. Anything less only serves to remind of the craftsmanship and the care that are missing at the work's most elemental levels.

    Ragtime captivates because of its scope, but it's that scope that prevents it from succeeding on the human levels that the greatest musicals always have. As with the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel on which it's based, the musical folds real people of both extraordinary and temporary vintage into a fanciful, feel-good story about the germination of contemporary American tolerance. The matriarch of a New Rochelle WASP family (known only as Mother), left in charge while her husband (Father) treks to the North Pole, becomes entangled in a romance between a despondent black girl (Sarah) and the charismatic piano player (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) who sired her baby. Through Mother's kindness and uncharacteristic open-mindedness, Coalhouse and Sarah reunite, but are separated again by racism that eventually subsumes Coalhouse's naturally kind soul and turns him to acts of violence. Meanwhile, a Latvian refugee, Tateh, inspired by the world-changing examples of Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman, progresses from the Lower East Side slums to a Hollywood career, while Mother's Younger Brother is sequentially seduced by the salaciously untalented girl-of-the-moment Evelyn Nesbit, the rabble-rousing Goldman, and the vengeance-seeking Coalhouse.

    Ragtime2.jpg Yes, every character is fighting for or against the American democratic ideal, and librettist McNally, lyricist Ahrens, and composer Flaherty never let you forget it. Their pageant, ostensibly set in 1906 but more readily a product of cusp-of-the-21st-century liberal self-aggrandizement, counts so many locales, characters, and subplots that even the sea-to-shining-sea stage of New York's Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Hilton) could barely contain them all.

    Nor could that elegant barn of a theater bring the writing down to size. Succinct but overwrought book scenes, which seldom hinge on more than the various injustices to which everyone spends their onstage lives reacting, leave little to chance and even less to the imagination, making their points with explicit frankness. The score is anchored by anthems of every musical variety (the wonderfully malleable Flaherty has never been more chameleonic than here) and every conceivable subject: the swirling unease with the three cultural factions coexist (the title number), the quest for change at home or abroad ("Journey On"), the pain of unwelcome motherhood and even more unwanted unrequited love ("Your Daddy's Son"), white art's creeping inculcation of the Black Sound in music as well as romance ("New Music"), the endless expanse of opportunity the United States offers ("Wheels of a Dream"), the paucity of justice for black people trying to fight the system ("Till We Reach That Day")... and that's only Act I.

    Exhausting to watch and listen to, Ragtime can be exciting—and, indeed, can only be exciting—when everything about it matches the writing's make-or-break outlook on musical theatre. Without sets that detail a bevy of locales from the old Pennsylvania Station to Harlem to the beaches of Atlantic City to the J.P. Morgan library, the show is forced to communicate on an intimate level its creators always intended it to operate above.

    This has created a very troubling post-Broadway life for the musical, as no theatre company anywhere has ever marshaled the resources or the capital that Livent did. (And, given producer Garth Drabinsky's subsequent legal troubles, that's unquestionably a good thing.) Theatre companies may be attracted to the score, which is plangently epic in a way almost none other today is, and to the show as a satisfying, politically engaging alternative to the old and aging warhorses like Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Music Man, West Side Story, and so on. But those shows weren't assembled but written in a way that Ragtime never seems to be—it's one of the few shows that deservedly won Tonys for its book and its score, but deservedly lost the Tony for Best Musical (to The Lion King); the whole is unavoidably less than the sum of its parts. So trying to deconstruct the show, to shrink it and smooth it out so that anyone can do it, is an exercise in futility: You can't change its nature, and its nature is big big big.

    The APAC production is the third, and smallest, pulled-back Ragtime I've seen. The first was the First National Tour in 1999, at its second stop (after the first of several rounds of reductions had already begun), and in size and opulence it was perhaps three-quarters of what was seen on Broadway and in Los Angeles and Vancouver. In 2005, I attended Stafford Arima's disastrous "rethinking" at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, which basically involved transforming the work from an aggressive megamusical into an ugly, avant-garde nightmare loaded with loopy characterizations and nonsensical storytelling. APAC's is better than that, as it harbors no illusions about itself, and at least attempts the sweep that Arima went out of his way to eradicate. The unit set (by Michael P. Kramer), a collection of diminutive display shelves, is meaningless but harmless; David Withrow's costumes and Travis Walker's lights are basic but functional. The band (under Daniel Feyer's musical direction) is by necessity too small, but it's engagingly spirited; the same is true of the director and his cast, who unlock nothing new in the material, but don't obscure what's already there, as Arima did.

    Ragtime3.jpgUnfortunately, none of this is at all sufficient. Twenty-six actors are not enough to populate the three central groups to any reasonable degree: The opening number is both cramped and sparse, with everyone onstage but off-balance and providing no sense of vocal or physical weight; and in larger group numbers that would ideally be exclusively white, black actors swell the ranks and ruin the presiding theme of groups that shouldn't completely unite until the final scene. "Coalhouse Demands," set early in the second act as Coalhouse rampages against the bigoted firemen who have wronged him, needs veritable armies of blacks and whites to define the conflict that's begun boiling over. A handful here and there can't communicate the ethnicity-crossing stakes.

    Many of the performances are small, too, if in a different way. D. William Hughes is so shruggingly smooth as Coalhouse he tends to get lost onstage, even when he's the only one singing—his "Make Them Hear You," is an introspective character number rather than a climactic and electric farewell to arms. Anna Lise Jensen understands Mother's basic difficulties of being a forward-thinking woman in a backward-looking-man's world, but evinces little evolution from docile domestic to independent thinker. (Her 11-o'clock spot, "Back to Before," however, is the production's sole genuine showstopper.) Mark Gerrard is forceful, if somewhat one-note, as Tateh, and he gives you little sense of how an uneducated immigrant could become an urbane, celebrated filmmaker. Carmel Javaher finds no fire in Emma Goldman—you can't understand how she'd inspire anyone to cross the street, let alone throw up a picket line; as Younger Brother, Ricky Oliver possesses none of the spiky pluck that should burst out of this young man looking for a reason to live; Stacie Bono is distractingly refined as Evelyn Nesbit.

    On the other hand, James Andrew Walsh is a terrific Father: brusque and unyielding, a victim of inertia in a world that despises it, and yet friendly and sympathetic as his world dissolves. Janine Ayn Romano makes for a sparkling Sarah, though her voice conveys more musical-theatre convention than it does earthiness or pain. Booker T. Washington isn't much of a role, but Matthew D. Brooks brings a dynamic gravitas to his portrayal of the hero whose message Coalhouse ignores. Jonathan Gregg, with a winning mixture of pomposity and mystery, makes a fine Houdini, even if the role has been so eviscerated it's barely clear why he's even still in the show.

    Ragtime4.jpgThis, for the record, is not APAC's fault. The writers have been cutting that character's signature song, "Harry Houdini, Master Escapist," as early as that First National Tour, apparently under the impression that the second act doesn't need to begin with a figurative or literal bang. Their solution, to simply cut the scene (which, depicting a nightmare that presages and predicts Coalhouse's reign of terror, was more mood-setting than plot-connected) and instead jump right into the madness-infused "Coalhouse's Soliloquy," has never worked. It makes the show smaller and more scalable, but it denies the audience a much-needed respite and reminders of Houdini's function as a symbolic success story for a second act steeped in failure and as an anchor for a crucial bit of future history (Mother and Father's son keeps reminding him to "Warn the duke"). Of course, "Harry Houdini, Master Escapist," as a set piece, only makes sense when the show is full-size, and McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty obviously realized early on that in most productions the show would never be able to shoulder its weight, let alone the special effects required to give this dazzling escape scene its due.

    But the number's loss is emblematic of everything that is, and has always been, wrong with Ragtime: Remove something that appears extraneous, and everything else collapses. The entire show is just this way, so dependent on even the tiniest details that no single keystone can support the show but any single piece can destroy it. APAC certainly doesn't destroy Ragtime, but it doesn't help it, either. All it does is prove that while Ragtime will always fascinate, it will also always frustrate and fail whenever it's not backed by the millions of dollars needed to make a soaring eagle from what is too often an unmovable and unmoving hulk.

    Ragtime plays through February 22 at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church (30-44 Crescent Street, Astoria). Click here for additional information, or to purchase tickets.

    All photos of the Astoria Performing Arts Center production of Ragtime are by Jen Maufrais Kelly. From top to bottom: (left to right) Ricky Oliver, Anna Lise Jensen, and James Andrew Walsh as Younger Brother, Mother, and Father; D. William Hughes and Janine Ayn Romano as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and Sarah; Mark Gerrard and Jordan Bloom as Tateh and the Little Girl; Jonathan Gregg and Stacie Bono as Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit.

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