It can be all about the timing.
I’ve seen the musical “Ragtime” three times, including the original Broadway production back in 1998 starring Fresno’s Audra McDonald. Earnest and powerful, with a score that makes you want to stand before a crowd and belt out a call for a more just and equitable world, the show has always moved me.
But I’ve never been quite as affected by “Ragtime” as I was Tuesday night at the Saroyan Theatre.
Not necessarily because of the quality of this handsome production, which is pretty good for a national tour, although some sound and vocal issues took it down a couple of notches.
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What made this “Ragtime” soar for me was its juxtaposition with the place we are in the United States, right now, in real time. At intermission, I couldn’t turn off my inner political junkie, and I checked my phone for election results. Five states had voted. Returns were coming in.
Without getting into the heated, nitty-gritty particulars of individual candidates in the current presidential campaign – there’s plenty of that already available in our discourse-saturated lives – let’s just acknowledge some of the dominant issues in this election: Immigration. Racism and violence. Economic inequality. The impact of automation and trade.
“Ragtime” is set in 1906. One of the jokes has to do with a famous celebrity murder involving the famous vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbitt, one of the historical figures included in the show, a sensational event that wags at the time dubbed the “crime of the century.” But “there were 94 years to go,” smirks Emma Goldman, the famed socialist firebrand, also a character.
Here’s what kept going through my head as I watched the show: There are 110 years to go between when it is set and now. What are the dominant issues in “Ragtime”? Immigration. Racism and violence. Economic inequality. The impact of automation and trade.
Certainly, “progress” has been made on some fronts. (One of the major themes of “Ragtime” is feminism, and we have a woman running for president.) But on such issues as immigration and racial violence, it’s striking how much has stayed the same. In a word, “Ragtime” made me ache for a nation still coming to terms with some major demons.
This deeply felt adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s wonderfully tangled novel about a fractured America at the start of the 20th century has a more minimalist bent in terms of scenic design and staging compared to the first mammoth production on Broadway. The direction and choreography by Marcia Milgrom Dodge is more intimate and less grandiose. This helps bridge the gap between the sprawling tangles of the narrative that in Terrence McNally’s original book feature characters more as archetypes than fully fleshed-out individuals. (Indeed, three major characters are known simply as Father, Mother and Mother’s Younger Brother.)
There are times, though, that Dodge’s direction turn those archetypes more personal, such as in a touching and quietly revealing scene between Mother (a stirring Kate Turner) and Tateh (a feisty and relevant Matthew Curiano) in the second act.
“Ragtime” is about three “worlds” that operate mostly independently of each other – upscale white, as exemplified by Mother; immigrant Jewish, by Tateh; and black Harlem (by the successful ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr., played by Chris Sams, an emotional powerhouse) – bumping into each other and finally intermingling. Turner and Curiano’s chemistry helps cement the concept.
Kevin Depinet’s scenic design, relying heavily on projections and a few well designed set pieces, effectively maintains the minimalist feel while still capturing the sweep of the production.
The play is epic in scope, and I encourage first-time viewers to familiarize themselves a bit with the characters and storylines. Along with the fictional families created by Doctorow, historical figures pepper the action, including Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington. Together it becomes a big, melting-pot narrative.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ music and lyrics are the heart of “Ragtime,” and here the production doesn’t always deliver. The sound in the Saroyan Theatre, seemingly an eternal problem for touring groups, was pretty clear in terms of lyrics for me most of the time. (Remember: Each production brings in its own sound design, and it’s that tour’s responsibility to adapt to the theater, which can be done). The most egregious mishap: the loss of much of the lead gospel-style singer, Aneesa Folds, in the powerhouse first-act finale “Till We Reach That Day,” in what sounded to me like a microphone-related issue. At times the small orchestra sounded tinny.
The principal cast members were able for the most part to belt it out as required, though none were able to achieve Broadway quality. Best were Leslie Jackson as Sarah and Turner as Mother. (I lost a lot of Troy Bruchwalski’s spoken dialogue as Father because of enunciation/sound issues.) In smaller roles, Sandy Zwier as Emma Goldman and Jillian Van Niel as Evelyn Nesbit had some strong vocal moments.
I’m perplexed by the vocal performance of Sams as Coalhouse. At times he seemed to simply lose the entire mid-range of his voice. I thought perhaps the decision to cast a raspier, more character-sounding singer, rather than a sturdy and strong baritone with a booming top range, was done for creative reasons. I don’t know if Sams was sick, but such anthems as “Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You” wobble without superlative singing. (And if he was sick, an understudy should have gone on.)
Still, the glitches in this production didn’t detract from its powerful impact. There is much to absorb, both intellectually and emotionally. This show is about a turn of a century. But which one?
In a reprise of one of the show’s most wistful songs, “New Music,” Father muses about all the recent changes in his life – and that of his country’s. “Was I away too long?” he sings. “When did they change the song?”
But that song hasn’t changed, at least as much as it should.
That’s the essence of ‘Ragtime.”
- 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 16
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- www.broadwayinfresno.com, 800-745-3000