Story: In 1906 the American melting pot is fully evident in New York City. An upper-middle-class white family comprised of Father, Mother, their Son, Grandfather and Mother’s Younger Brother reside in the posh suburb of New Rochelle. A young black pianist named Coalhouse Walker Jr. performs a new musical style called ‘ragtime’ in Harlem nightclubs, while a European Jewish immigrant named Tateh arrives with his young daughter at Ellis Island.
Father runs a strict household, leaving specific instructions for his wife when he leaves America to join Admiral Robert Peary’s expedition to the North Pole. When a maid later reports to Mother that a black baby has been left in their yard, Mother decides to keep the child. After the baby’s mother, Sarah, is found and about to be charged with abandonment and attempted murder, Mother informs the authorities that she is going to care both for the child and his mother.
While Emma Goldman leads laborers in their battle for better working conditions, and Harry Houdini amazes audiences with his legerdemain, Mother’s Younger Brother becomes fixated on celebrity sensation Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband has killed her lover and been charged with murder in “the crime of the century.”
Walker learns that his lover Sarah is living with a white family in New Rochelle and attempts to woo her back. For weeks she resists, even as Mother invites Walker into their home, where he entertains them with his compositions.
Meanwhile, Tateh struggles to survive in the New World, eventually leaving New York for factory work in Massachusetts. When a railroad conductor buys a “moving picture book” that Tateh had created for his daughter, Tateh realizes he has a product that people will want to purchase.
Walker eventually wins back Sarah’s love, but their happiness is short-lived. While Walker is intelligent and educated, he can’t overcome the ignorance and hostility of some local firemen who destroy his prized Model T Ford, which he had purchased while working in Henry Ford’s manufacturing plant.
America is changing rapidly, but not soon enough for the happiness of everyone. Mother’s love for Father is fading and her admiration for friendly immigrant Tateh is growing, while Walker deals with increasing resentment and hatred for his status. Can ‘ragtime’ save any of them from a hostile world?
Highlights: Associate artistic director Justin Been ups his already impressive game with a monumentally moving and masterful interpretation of Ragtime, the 1998 Broadway sensation which garnered 13 Tony Award nominations, at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey. It’s one of the year’s most magnificent productions, memorable and magical in its brilliance.
Other Info: With a record cast of 26 people for a Stray Dog production, Ragtime isn’t perfect, as several of the smaller roles are adequately if not wondrously filled. Still, there are so many staggering elements in Been’s presentation, and the effort as a whole is so affecting, that one can forgive minor blemishes.
To begin, scenic designer David Blake elongates the Tower Grove stage with a two-tiered construction which features a sprawling, second story that expands into the wings. This serves symbolically to underscore the epic scope of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel and the adaptation by writer Terrence McNally.
It also serves pragmatically to allow for revealing speeches given by historical figures who permeate the story, including Ford, Goldman, Houdini, magnate J.P. Morgan and educator Booker T. Washington.
McNally’s intelligent, visionary script is richly complemented by the sweeping musical score written by Stephen Flaherty and the meaningful lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, each of whom won Tony Awards for their efforts. Eileen Engel’s costumes are a wealth of creativity covering three different strata of early 20th century America, and Tyler Duenow bathes the stage in luminescent design.
Musically, Stray Dog’s Ragtime is precisely tight under the sage direction of Jennifer Buchheit. She leads a band smartly composed of pianists Chris Petersen, Mike Blackwood and herself, clarinetist Kelly Austermann, violinist Mallory Golden, trumpeter John Reichert and percussionist Joe Winters. They lend notable support to the stylish choreography by Mike Hodges that makes shrewd use of the Tower Abbey stage on numbers set in the Harlem nightclub.
Been elicits a number of powerful performances, primarily by Omega Jones as the charismatic Coalhouse and Evan Addams, who demonstrates a remarkably clear and stunning voice as Sarah which validates her Artists-in-Training Program with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Kay Love, like Jones, backs up her mesmerizing vocal abilities with a particularly poignant performance as Mother, especially moving in her scenes with Jeffrey Wright, who shines as the steadfastly optimistic widower Tateh.
Phil Leveling does some of his best work as Father, showing the man’s rigidity at first while also slowly revealing fissures in Father’s once-impenetrable world view. Another impressive performance is delivered by Laura Kyro as the staunch socialist Emma Goldman.
Angela Bubash and Joseph Gutowski deliver winning portrayals of the vapid Nesbit and the philosophical Houdini respectively, and Terry Lee Watkins Jr. is solid as the human moral compass, Booker T. Washington. Jason Meyers makes Henry Ford a surprisingly appealing figure, while Gerry Love underscores the damning indifference of J.P. Morgan.
Others contributing include Jon Bee as Mother’s Younger Brother, Chuck Lavazzi as Grandfather and also the bigoted fire chief Will Conklin, Joe Webb as the mystical Little Boy (son of Mother and Father), Avery Smith as Tateh’s daughter and Ebony Easter as Sarah’s friend.
The ensemble, which Been uses to good advantage roaming the aisles of the theater, includes Jackson Buhr, Jennifer Clodi, Chris Gauss, Melissa Sharon Harris, William Humphrey, Caleb Long, Dorrian Neymour, Kevin O’Brien, Belinda Quimby and Chrissie Watkins.
Been’s version of Tommy several years ago remains unforgettable, but this rendition of Ragtime ranks among his very best efforts. It’s affecting, rousing and stunningly relevant to 21st century America, with nary a discordant chord in its composition.
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: August 10-12, 16-19
Tickets: $20-$25; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb