American Dreams in Syncopated Time: Ragtime at the Hobby

Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse Walker and the cast of Ragtime.
Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse Walker and the cast of Ragtime. Photo by Melissa Taylor
Ragtime (1996) is a serious musical. It has grand ideas, an epic sweep, an operatic production, a cinematic flow. Buoyed by a rich score, intelligent lyrics, and polished book, American history turns personal and deeply moving.

This is musical theater as river, coursing and roiling, cascading then calming, forever on the move as it carves through rock toward the sea. It is a mighty achievement for any era. Big and sprawling, the show, in a way, is our American Les Miz. Though not on a par with those two other Broadway classics of the American Dream, Show Boat or Oklahoma, this contemporary musical is, nonetheless, worthy to be spoken of along with them. Yes, Act II slows down with more power ballads than necessary, even as the plot goes into boil, but the musical has such strong bones that the padding doesn't bring the structure crashing to a halt as in ordinary musicals. We seem to relish the extra time spent with the intriguing characters.

The show is adapted from E.L. Doctorow's 1975 kaleidoscopic historical novel, and what better book to be turned into a musical. The sly influence of ragtime swirls throughout. Its haunting simple melodies interweave with elite syncopation as the fictional main characters butt against and interact with history's actual people. Look, there's J.P. Morgan. Over here, Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington. There's Henry Ford in his factory and Admiral Peary off to the Arctic. On the next page, scandalous Evelyn Nesbit flirts with anarchist Emma Goldman. The times are changing, and music changes with it. Music, perhaps, changes the times. Those unable or unwilling to adapt are swept into the past.

The turn of the 20th century is America's new dawn. The Gilded Age is passing into the Progressive Era. The courtly waltz has morphed into slangy ragtime, the music of the rising black class, stretching their wings, they hope, in the fresh new air. Not surprisingly, the social problems at the beginning of Ragtime's 20th century eerily parallel those at the beginning of our 21st – there is still toxic masculinity, economic imbalance, radical politics, bigotry, class division, gender inequality. Maybe it is true, only music truly changes.

With a delicate pianola tune that will echo through the show, we first meet the white upper-class household known as Father (Ryan Silverman), Mother (Courtney Markowitz), Mother's Younger Brother (Evan Kinnane), and The Little Boy (Michael Karash). Father is starchy, Mother is suffocatingly domestic, Younger Brother craves excitement, and The Little Boy is oddly clairvoyant. They promenade to the front of the stage, their world without care until the lyric, “There were gazebos, and there were no Negroes.” Suddenly upstage, the iron staircase is arrayed with residents from Harlem, who strut downstage praising their new music, ragtime. The whites are shuffled off to the side. Among this group is composer Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew) and soon-to-be lover Sarah (Danyel Fulton). The tempo increases. The heat's on.

“There were no Negroes...and there were no immigrants.” Pow, who's on the staircase now? Newly arrived middle European migrants, overflowing with hope and fear of the unknown. Widowed Tateh (Robert Petkoff) clutches his little daughter (Maya Kaul). They join into the circle dance, as the music spins into dissonance. Everybody's mixed up, a little lost, until they sort themselves out, and the orchestra plays the sublime ragtime melody in full. To William David Brohn's fragrant and diapason-infused orchestrations from the original 1998 Broadway production, the entire company belts, “A century spinning in riches and rags, and in rhythm and rhyme. The people called it ragtime...” What a magnificent opening. All themes laid out, all characters introduced, all conflicts in place. We are in very capable hands.

The music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens are sublime, eminently deserving the Tony Award for Best Score won in 1998. They've been collaborating since their college days (Seussical, Once on This Island, Rocky, Anastasia, My Favorite Year), but this is their masterpiece. It's a delicious fusion of pastiche ragtime and pop Broadway. The love ballads are creamy, the anthems inspiring, and the character numbers are precise and defining. Tied together by ragtime's lilting syncopated rhythm, the score can stand proudly against Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, anyone. The book, by grand old pro Terrence McNally (Love! Valour! Compassion!; Master Class; Kiss of the Spider Woman; Lips Together, Teeth Apart), is itself a master class in judicious pruning and condensation necessary for adapting a play from such a fragmented novel. It is as clean as Doctorow's prose.

The original production was a gargantuan affair, bedecked by the best of Broadway, reputedly costing $10 million. It was Ziegfeldian and ran two years. The 2009 revival, mounted for Kennedy Center and then shifted to Broadway, was still big. But in ten years, the real estate rates in Manhattan had risen exponentially. The show was overstuffed and couldn't recoup weekly grosses. It ran two months.

Theatre Under the Stars has done a great service by this revival. While minimal yet efficient, the show has class and looks gorgeous. Sure, there's no Eugene Lee gigantic iron bargework Penn Station to take our breath away, no fireworks, no actual Model T, but Kevan Loney's haunting watercolor projections evoke and stimulate on a quieter level, dissolving in and out like a movie. Against these, Kevin Depinet's elemental furnishings, like stairs and door frames, are entirely of a piece. Santo Loquasto's stunning period costumes come from the revival, while Matthew Richards's lighting overlays this musical history journey with blazing theatrical dash and excitement. The pace and movement is wondrous, with the credit going to director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, from the Kennedy Center production, who doubles as choreographer. The blending of movement and dance is seamless, a bit of cakewalk on the side to get people out of the way for the next scene.

Not for nothing is the front curtain a portrait of the face of the Statue of Liberty, with the proscenium ringed with Emma Lazarus's last lines from The New Colossus: “Give me Your Tired, Your Poor...”

Ragtime is the face of America, with its flaws and blemishes, its ideals quashed or radiantly realized, its beauties and disappointments. Anyone with a dream is welcomed. Where else on earth can you dream so large? Even if you fail, dreaming in ragtime is always better.

Ragtime continues through April 28 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sunday April 21; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $30-$104.50 plus fees.
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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover