Written on May 28th, 2012

When Three Worlds Collide

Ragtime is a story of the collision of three very separate worlds that all ram into each other in New York City in the early 1900s. First we meet a family from New Rochelle, affluent and white. Then there are the African-Americans from Harlem, and arriving at the docks are the Jewish refugees from Latvia. This part of the musical is fiction. We see what happens when a series of coincidental circumstances cause these three very different worlds to collide.

What I really like about Ragtime is all the fact woven into the fiction. Many real life characters of those years just before the First World War are embedded into the Ragtime fabric: Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Admiral Peary, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington are all featured in the plot. And while those years all seem idyllic (and maybe they were if you were a wealthy, white family living in New Rochelle), the weave is about to unravel abruptly, as predicted by the young boy in the story, when Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated leading to the outbreak of the Great War.

It’s a wonderful plot braiding the three worlds together, bringing the different characters into scenarios. We soon realize that despite the lively ragtime music, the descendants of slaves are far from happy. Nor are the new immigrants who came to America with so much promise and are now bitterly disappointed. And even in the beautiful white family, life is not happy for a woman.

It is this fascinating story that makes this musical a success at this year’s Shaw Festival. And while the race relations and bigotry makes the entertainment rather heavy, it isn’t without its lighter moments. In particular, there is a very funny scene at a baseball game providing comic relief.

Many excellent actors bring that story to life. Thom Allison is perfect as Coalhouse Walker, the piano player whose life unfolds tragically. Allison’s voice soars in the anthem “Wheels of a Dream”, and his “Make them hear you” is heartfelt. Alana Hibbert as Sarah and Nichola Lawrence as Sarah’s friend both have rich, strong voices.

The many real life characters bring history alive. Most notable are Kelly Wong as Houdini who keeps popping up unexpectedly, Kate Henning as the anarchist Emma Goldman who spreads her philosophy, and Julie Martell as the interesting Vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit.

Other personalities are puzzling. The character, Mother, should be a young women who makes a personal journey during the show. She should be coming into her own, realizing she can handle business, overcome race issues, and then marry for love. This growth is not evident in this production. Similarly, Father should be an adventurer. He is ready to trek to the North Pole, just for fun. But his compelling need to travel, which ultimately results in his death, is not demonstrated, nor believable. In another instance, where ethnicity is central to the plot, it makes no sense that a fair-skinned redheaded girl would be cast as a Jewish Latvian child.

But despite these misconstrued characters, Ragtime is a wonderful show with an important message and a magnificent story to tell. The cleverly contrived plot, bringing fact and fiction together make this well worth seeing.

Ragtime continues at the Shaw Festival in repertoire until October 14. Call 1-800-511-7429 or visit www.shawfest.com for tickets.

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Choreographed by Valerie Moore
Musical direction by Paul Sportelli
Performed by Thom Allison, Patty Jamieson, Jay Turvey, et al
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake
April 10 to October 14, 2012
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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