Watching Ragtime at MusicalFare Theatre brings to mind the adage "the more things change, the more they remain the same." Set in the early 20th century in the northeast, the three central families in the musical embody issues that are still relevant in our society more than 100 years later—racial prejudice and the violence it engenders, distrust and dislike of immigrants and the exploitation of their labor, and women’s rights. Interwoven with these social and political issues, are more lighthearted moments that provide a counterpoint to the seriousness of those themes.
Based on E. L. Doctorow’s popular historical novel of the same name, with a book by Terrence McNally, Ragtime distills Doctorow’s complex narrative into two hours-plus of dialogue and music, weaving fictional and historical figures into an account that highlights those three themes through the interactions of the three families: The upper middle-class white family in New Rochelle (“Where there were no Negroes and there were no immigrants...”) consisting of Mother, Father, Younger Brother, Grandfather and Little Boy; the Jewish immigrant artist Tateh and Little Girl; and Coalhouse Walker, Junior, a well-to-do Harlem piano player, his lover Sarah, and their infant son. These characters interact with the likes of Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini.
Director Randall Kramer has created a powerful and entertaining production and has assembled a cast of 18 that does not have a weak link.
Lorenzo Shawn Parnel has a powerful voice and presence as Coalhouse. He is equally at home dancing in the light and zippy “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and singing the heart-rending “Wheels of a Dream.” He transforms himself from the confident man who believes he can find redress in the system when his car is vandalized by an Irish fireman, to an incendiary who burns firehouses and threatens to blow up J.P. Morgan’s library.
Chrissy Vogric-Hunnell, who has a strong and very beautiful voice, plays Mother with just the right amount of compassion and steely determination to do what she believes is right. In her song “Back to Before,” she speaks to the changing roles of women and to her own awakening with a deep understanding.
Kyle Baran is excellent as Tateh, who transforms from the starving immigrant into a movie mogul, calling himself a Baron, no less. His misery is tangible, as is his love for his daughter and determination to care for her, and later his joy in his success.
Choreography is by Michael Walline. He has a lot of fun with several of the lighter tunes. “Crime of the Century” is one, in which the vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit, played to the hilt by Stevie Jackson, shows off her skills on a red swing. In “What a Game,” baseball fans at the Polo Grounds show off their linguistic skills, hocking and spitting in unison to the horror of Father (Marc Sacco) and delight of Little Boy (Noah Bielecki).
Musical Director Theresa Quinn and her musicians are outstanding. They set mood and tone without ever overwhelming the dialogue and songs and are just a pleasure to hear. Set, lighting and sound design are by Chris Cavanagh. He uses low platforms with railings, two of which are moveable, to become a railroad station, rooms in a house, and a Harlem nightclub. Black and white projections on the back wall are old pictures of Atlantic City, the Lower East Side of New York, and other venues that indicate changes of scene. Period costumes are by Kari Drozd, and hair, wig and make-up are by Susan Drozd. Houdini’s wig is particularly fetching, as is his swimming costume.
Given our contemporary complex race issues, Mother’s rescue of Sarah’s infant and taking in Sarah and the baby might be seen by 21st century sensibilities as another white savior trope. However, Ragtime does tackle difficult social justice issues and pulls no punches in its use of language. It tells a powerful story and does not flinch from exposing the dark side of the American Dream, while it also celebrates its successes in an entertaining mélange of music, song and dance.
Ragtime plays at MusicalFare Theatre through March 17th.