‘Ragtime’ explores American dreams and nightmares with Asolo Rep | Arts and Entertainment

In 1975, novelist E.L. Doctorow wrote a very big book called “Ragtime.” In 1996, playwright Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, adapted it as a very big musical. If you’ve read the book, it seems like odd material for Broadway musical theater.

Doctorow’s sprawling novel unfolds at the dawn of the 20th century. On the surface, it tackles America’s class and racial struggles. But that’s like saying “Gravity’s Rainbow” is a novel about rockets. “Ragtime” is a post-modern shaggy dog story, stuffed with a multitude of historical and imaginary characters. It’s not a tale, but several intertwining tales, often contradictory. How could you possibly turn it into a musical?

McNally stripped it down to three key stories …

There’s the all-American success story of Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who flees to America with his daughter from the pogroms of Latvia. He starts as a starving artist selling paper silhouettes for a dime. His cutouts evolve into photo flipbooks, and Tateh makes the jump to motion pictures to become a Hollywood pioneer.

There’s the story of an upper-class, W.A.S.P. family living in New Rochelle, New York. The unnamed characters (Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, and the Boy) feel like refugees from a Thornton Wilder novel. Their all-American family business is as patriotic as it gets. They’ve grown rich selling fireworks and flags.

The private uprising of Coalhouse Walker Jr. is the central narrative. He’s a gifted, African-American pianist who believes in the American Dream. Initially, Coalhouse’s dream comes true. He’s a successful musician who can afford a brand-new Model-T. But Coalhouse’s dream shatters when a group of thuggish volunteer firemen block the road and trash his car. But that humiliating, racist incident is only the beginning of sorrows. Tragedy follows. And Coalhouse turns from ragtime to revolution.

Jade Turner and Alfie Parker Jr. perform in Asolo Rep’s production of “Ragtime.” Photo by Cliff Roles

Apart from these characters, the novel’s packed with turn-of-the-century celebrities: Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Morgan, Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington, to name a few. The musical gives them a few walk-on parts. Doctorow’s surreal, R-rated weirdness stays on the cutting-room floor.

Ahrens and Flaherty made a brilliant, if obvious, musical choice. They filled “Ragtime” … with ragtime. Their songs aren’t blatant rip-offs from Scott Joplin, but syncopated sound-alikes. The upbeat, bouncy tunes change the tone of the tale. Doctorow’s darkly comic jeremiad feels like a parade. Or a cakewalk.

It all comes together in this boisterous, inventive Asolo Rep production. It’s a reprise of director Peter Rothstein’s “Ragtime” revival at Theater Latté Da — a lean, mean version of the original Broadway show. (Here, you see a cast of only 17, as opposed to 44.) Instead of overwhelming you with a grand scale, this redux of “Ragtime” draws you in with a more intimate, personal style of storytelling. It’s effective.

Without elbowing you in the ribs, Rothstein makes clear connections between 1908 and 2018. The musical seethes with racism, immigrant-bashing, class warfare, and hypocrisy. The director’s obvious conclusion? The more America changes, the more it stays the same.

Britta Ollmann performs in Asolo Rep’s production of “Ragtime.” Photo by Cliff Roles

Michael Hoover’s set is minimal and powerful. He keeps the stage mostly bare, except for a grand piano (which doubles as Coalhouse’s Model-T and a hearse), a few chairs and some movable stairs. The backdrop is a gritty brick wall, complete with pop-open doors where Henry Ford, Harry Houdini and other figures occasionally appear. Trevor Bowen’s period-accurate costumes instantly telegraph the class-distinctions of this world. Kelli Foster Warder’s choreography is integral to the production’s playful approach to time and space. In a nod to Tateh’s silhouettes, Warder punctuates the action with high-stepping, silhouetted dance lines. It’s as if, at some level, it’s always the Fourth of July.

Music director Steve Orich delivers on the promise of Ahrens and Flaherty’s excellent songs. The nine-piece orchestra below the stage is nothing less than flawless. The same applies to the singing actors …

Jared Joseph portrays Coalhouse as an incandescent talent who was born too soon. In early 20th-century America, he’s got everything going for him except the color of his skin. Coalhouse’s heart overflows with love and music — until it’s broken. Joseph delivers an affecting, sympathetic characterization. (The musical’s creators carefully insulate your sympathies by keeping Coalhouse’s bombing campaign off-stage.)

Danyel Fulton plays the love of his life, Sarah. She’s an unmarried African-American woman who gave birth to Coalhouse’s child and abandoned the infant in the garden of a wealthy white family. Fulton brings fire and depth to what could’ve been a two-dimensional victim role. Britta Ollmann’s Mother is the musical’s moral center of gravity. She discovers Coalhouse and Sarah’s newborn baby in her garden. Instead of calling the authorities, she opens her home to both mother and child. (And then lets Coalhouse win Sarah back over the next two months after he’d abandoned her.)

Jared Joseph and Danyel Fulton play new parents Sarah and Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Asolo Repertory Theatre’s intimate cast of “Ragtime.” Photo by Cliff Roles

Bret Shuford is effective as Father, a man with a defective moral compass who thinks he’s one of the good guys. David Darrow is incisive and nuanced as Mother’s Younger Brother. He’s a man whose conscience is working perfectly — and won’t let him stay on the sidelines. (Darrow’s energized performance reminds me of a young Steve Buscemi at the height of his game.) Sasha Andreev’s Tateh is always a crowd-pleaser. Like Coalhouse, his character is another talented artist who refuses to quit. Kudos also to Leslie Becker, Benjamin Dutcher, Rod Singleton and Billie Wildrick for their portrayals of Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini and Evelyn Nesbit.

Expect to be entertained. The talents are stellar—and the musical is great on its own terms. Those are the only terms that count, although literary purists might object.

Milos Foreman’s sharply cynical 1981 film adaptation was truer to the detached, satirical spirit of Doctorow’s novel. The musical adaptation plucks at your heartstrings in a way the novel never tries. It’s an understandable choice — with precedent. Walt Disney famously said that Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” was clever but “lacked heart.” McNally evidently felt the same way about “Ragtime.” The book is a literary mirror maze. The musical strives for emotional connection. It’s full of human warmth. And there’s even a dash of patriotism.

Where the novel felt like a requiem for the American dream. This musical adaptation ends on an optimistic reprise of “Wheels of a Dream.”

You’ll feel like saluting, even if you have read the book.

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