Reviewed by Will Stackman
New music is the organizing theme behind the Tony Award winning "Ragtime"(1998), perhaps the most durable of show by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, with a superior book by Terrence McNally, adapted from E. L. Doctorow's panoramic novel in John Dos Passos' tradition. Flaherty's score draws on the rich tradition of Ragtime, the new music of the turn of the last century, initiated by composer Scott Joplin and brought to Broadway by Eubie Blake with nods to Berlin, Rogers, Kurt Weill, and Sondheim while Ahren's lyrics have echoes starting with Berlin, with touches of Hart, Ira Gershwin, and of course, Sondheim. The staging requires an epic sense from the theatre of Reinhart, Piscator, Brecht, Welles, and the W.P.A. Director Rick Lombardo, along with choreographer Kelli Edwards get what's needed from the largest ensemble this company has ever assembled, for this show, which will one of the enduring classics of American music theatre.
Their excellent cast is anchored by IRNE Award winner Leigh Barrett as Mother in a role which uses all her best talents, culminating in the show's final solo, "Back to Before." She's partnered by veteran music theatre performer Peter Edmund Haydu as Father, last seen locally in the New Rep's "Christmas Carol" as Marley et al. The more romantic duo of Coalhouse Walker Jr., the ragtime piano player from Harlem and his girl, Sarah, are played by NYU vocal performance grad Michael E. Parent, who's done the role in NYC, and Sarah Umoh, a BosCon BFA candidate. Both bring charm, power and honest emotion to their roles, including the heartbreaking duo, "Sarah Brown-Eyes" late in the second act. Representing the third element in "Ragtime"'s melting pot, singer and comedian Robert Saoud has his most fulfilling role in a long time as Tateh, the Lativian emigre artist who starts out ragged selling silhouettes on the street in front of a tenement on the lower East Side and winds up in California making silent movies for the nickolodeons, all for his motherless daughter.
Primary casting for rest of the ensemble has June Babolan as anarchist Emma Goldman, Dee Crawford as Sarah's Gospel Singer friend, Aimee Doherty as showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, Paul D. Farwell as firechief Willie Conklin, Frank Gayton as Henry Ford, Paul Giragos as Harry Houdini, Austin Lesch as Mother's Younger Brother, big Bill Molnar as financier J.P. Morgan, Sophie Rich as Tateh's daughter, and Samuel A Wartenberg as Mother's young son.Several appear in other named roles as well. All these singers, dancers, and scene shifters join as many other members of cast, who have small parts also, in various large numbers melding into a seamless ensemble. The entire company numbers more than thirty, nota counting appropriately attired music director Todd. C. Gordon visibly conducting from a keyboard a seven member orchestra on a bandstand hovering over backstage left.
The technical support begins with Janie E. Howland's structural set which forms and reforms on a wide open stage backed by broken red strips against black. Franklin Messner Jr.'s lighting defines the show and features excellent moving gobo effects for key scenes. Projections of mostly black and white images stage left and right, designed and executed by Dorian Des Lauriers enhance the epic effect. Both IRNE winner Frances Nelson McSherry from N.U. and veteran costumer Molly Trainer outdo themselves in period detail and scope, providing the many, many changes needed. And the Coalhouse's Ford, an excellent replica, was borrowed from NSMT. Wooden Kiwi, which handled the set construction, etc. had to hoist it up to the second floor theatre.
One of the earliest examples of American Music Theatre began in Boston when two Harvard grads, bored with clerking at the Statehouse, got permission from Longfellow to adapt "Evangeline" to the stage. With a score based on contemporary ballads and folk tunes, they toured the Eastern U.S before moving on to more profitable fields of endeavor. But like later efforts in NYC, such as Herrigan & Hart, a paradigm was set for a show which engages audiences by speaking to their shared daily journey around a constantly evolving country. It's not really an irony that New Rep's "Ragtime" opened on May 1, on the same day when millions of inhabitants took to the streets to protest recent political moves against the current wave of migrants. Their new music may be salsa, etc. but Latin sounds have been part of American music since at least the '30s. And Ragtime as a form was codified when African based syncopation was welded onto late 19th century piano technique by the genius of Black composers along the Mississippi. Ultimately, the American Music Theatre includes an honest patriotism, recognizing shared destiny, a perfect metaphor for the fabled "melting pot," typified by NYC, but really stretching from Maine to California, from Seattle to Miami. Which is why "Ragtime" may become a classic of the form.