Quinton Bonds in Ragtime the Musical. Photo:Faithworks

Ragtime the Musical

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow
Directed by Rush Trowel

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2022, Keith Waits. All rights reserved. 

I read E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime around 1976. A long, sprawling novel of great ambition that is set in New York City in the early days of the 20th century, it is a great work of art that attempts nothing less than to capture the unruly melting pot of the United States with all of its racial and social conflicts. 

There was a pretty good film by Milos Forman in 1982 and then in 1996, this musical premiered on Broadway. Both illustrate the challenges of trying to adapt Doctorow’s epic social narrative to approximately 2 hours. There is an abundance of stories to work with – it truly begs to be a streaming series of at least 8-10 hours – so the necessary cherry-picking and omission reduce much of the detail and nuance of Doctorow’s narrative.

The core structure of the story follows three New York families, a white, upper-crust New Rochelle clan of Father, Mother, her Younger Brother, Son, and Grandfather; Doctorow reinforces their archetypal nature in his refusal to give them names; the Jewish immigrant artist Tateh and his young daughter; and the gifted Black musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and the woman he loves, Sarah. Their lives intersect with each other as well as historical figures of the time such as escape artist Harry Houdini, Negro educator Booker T. Washington, and socialist  Emma Goldman.

Terence McNally’s book maintains some focus on the larger geographical threads, Father goes with Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, Tateh arrives on a ship from Europe and is processed through Ellis Island, but for all of the historical context, the story is a series of highly personal and sometimes intimate interactions. Relationships change and moral character is put to the test while society shifts beneath their feet. The upper class gains social conscience and the immigrant population begins an entirely new industry making movies.

The course is charted through music and song that is the ragtime of the new century but also a solid show score leaning towards operetta. The lack of straightforward dialogue helps create the sense of nostalgia for a period that no living person will remember, and that tone is an easy, warm glow that threatens to soften the harder aspects of the plot, specifically the shift of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. from educated musician and gentleman to a wanted criminal after he is confronted by openly racist firemen who grossly vandalize his new Model-T Ford.

As always, director/producer Rush Trowel finds the voices to do justice to the rich score. With a show like this, prioritizing vocal talent over acting talent is smart. Which is not to say that the character work is deficient, but the singing carries a lot of that weight, and these voices all work individually and in concert. There is not a weak link in the ensemble.

Christina Booker tops the list as Sarah. Even though she has less time than some of the other characters, she and Quinton Bond’s Coalhouse are the emotional center of the piece, both the greatest passion and the greatest tragedy. Their duet, “Wheels of Dream” was a highlight, and their respective solos, “Your Daddy’s Son” for Sarah and “Make Them Hear You” from Coalhouse were powerful and moving moments.

The New Rochelle family were also in fine voice, and this adaptation gives Jess Kayrouz Ray’s Mother more of a spotlight, and Ray’s strong character singing illuminates  a woman struggling with her marriage at a time when divorce was unthinkable. Father is a bit of a conservative stiff but decent all the same, and Marc Monroe’s singing overcame the glitchy body microphone to reach the audience. Younger Brother, as played by the bright and upbeat Billy Bass, is a live wire of emotion, lust, and radicalization, and two numbers that feature him and Rebecca Worthington’s Emma Goldman allow their trained, expressive voices to underscore the intricacies of the score.

Blake Cox’s Tateh is a convincing immigrant and protective father, and his journey from idealism to betrayal and back to idealism is a particularly compelling plotline. Evelyn Nesbitt is an undervalued character in this adaptation, but Charity Burton realizes all of the delight and whimzy of the young woman and follows the darker destiny for the ultimately sad figure. The director himself essays a Booker T. Washington of suitable nobility and high purpose.

I could go on and on about the singing, and credit to Music Directors Marc Monroe and Tasha Wilson-Hatchett for working out the complexity of the ensemble vocal performance, but there is also some good, energetic choreography by Emily Trowel and Charity Barton, that allows Kristen Findley, Ayana Buckner, Jon Anthony Mosby, and Michael Jones to shine as dancers.

The design work was very good, albeit without credit in the program. The promenade set framed the action nicely and the costumes were mostly right on target. A wig or two looked awkward and phony, but otherwise the period setting was evoked effectively enough to support that colorful score.

Ragtime the Musical is solid entertainment, but it reminds us of Doctorow’s genius in bringing alive a period of seeming contrast to the present day and reinforcing that the 20th century ushered in a set of challenges to the American character that still plague us today: fierce immigration debates and a spike in xenophobia and a renewal of racisim and inequality, a rise in gun violence blamed on these issues, and domestic terrorism. Despite its generally upbeat tempo, Doctorow is examining the heart of darkness as intently as the generous heart, and how their mutual existence may finally be an intrinsic part of human nature.

Featuring Charity Barton, Billy Bass, Quinton Bonds, Christina Booker, Ayana Buckner, Melissa Kasey Case, Blake Cox, Kristen Findley, Lee Gibson, LiAndrea Goatley, Amy Haley, Locke Hargis, Tash Wilson Hatchett, Michael Jones, Marc Monroe, Jon-Anthony Mosby, Jess Kayrouz Ray, Austin Seeley, Don Ray Smith, Rush Trowell, Bert Williams, Zoe Wolf, Rebecca Worthington, Darian Wright, Tamla Yates, Marianne Zickhur     

Ragtime the Musical

September 15 – 25 @ 7:30pm

Faithworks Studios
Russell Theatre at New Directions
17th & Madison
Louisville, KY 40203

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.