Just like 1927’s Show Boat—the first, and arguably best, book musical as we know it—Ragtime does justice to both an epic swath of American history and the voices of individuals caught up in it. The 5th Avenue Theatre’s new production shows the skill of Terrence McNally’s book in condensing E.L. Doctorow’s lavish source novel while preserving its hard-hitting dramatic arc, capturing America’s mythical expansive optimism in the era right before World War I—in Act 1, that is. After a startlingly bleak finale, thrilling in its righteous anger, Act 2 debunks that myth. America wasn’t optimistic for everyone, it turns out.
Storylines from three strata of American society intertwine, seasoned with cameos from celebrities of the day (Harry Houdini, Henry Ford). Upper-middle-class whites lived the parasols-and-croquet good life while exploring, colonizing, and running the planet. Immigrants from Eastern Europe came for the promise of success; some found it, some were radicalized. And Negroes (the show’s term), just a half-century out from the end of slavery, were exhorted to education and betterment but crashed into the ugly remnants of racism.
Stephen Flaherty’s score is at its best when it draws on the music of its title. Ragtime tied these three worlds together: Syncopated and sophisticated, delicate and rollicking, music of the parlor and the brothel, linking European classical tradition and pointing ahead to jazz, it both earned mass commercial success and marked America’s first great contribution to world art music.
Ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr.—diverted by tragedy from his upwardly mobile path as a member of Harlem’s elite—emerges as the show’s focus, and Douglas Lyons inhabits the powerhouse role to its fullest. (Unlike Lyons, Coalhouse’s big ballad, “Wheels of a Dream,” doesn’t do the character justice, and it’s disappointing that Flaherty brings this sugar water back as the show’s closing anthem.)
Joshua Carter is larger than life—uninhibitedly, grippingly emotive and utterly lovable—as Tateh, the Jewish Latvian immigrant who makes good. In a role much quieter and less assuming than these two, a genteel white lady known only as Mother, Kendra Kassebaum is no less affecting—and if anything, more poignant, demonstrating that even the best intentions and biggest heart may be powerless against society’s worst impulses.
To anyone watching this musical, the parallels between 1917 and 2017 are clear enough—the psychotic thugs who menace Coalhouse could have marched in Charlottesville—but it also brings to mind one significant difference. As tumultuous as our time is, will it be possible to mythicize the first decades of this century as Ragtime did the first decades of the last? And will anyone ever be able to make art of it?