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Ragtime — Bristol Riverside Theatre

007In addition to telling a moving and compelling story, E.L. Doctorow scored two remarkable achievements when he published his novel, “Ragtime,” in 1975. He composed his novel in the rhythms and idioms of ragtime music, giving the reader a syncopated musical experience that entertained on a level beyond storytelling and showcased the art of writing in way that was robust and whimsical without becoming self-conscious.

Just as importantly, he created a compact epic saga about a period in American history that may be as seminal and culture-changing as any but is little studied or regarded compared to other revolutionary times. These are the years between major wars during which Caucasian, Christian America became a more diverse melting pot with the influx of more exotic immigrants, Eastern European and Asian, and the coming of age of the first generation of black Americans who were not born as, and never served as, slaves.

Doctorow brilliantly chronicled this socially evolutionary era without forgetting the established Americans who, whether from the Mayflower or from humbler, later beginnings, lived according to the Constitution and enjoyed picnics, fireworks, and baseball among other pastimes, some quite adventurous if finances and social status permitted. These were the people who had to adjust to newcomers and to blacks of magnitude and stature, such as Booker T. Washington. No one paid income tax. Women could not vote. Vaudeville was the primary entertainment. Ragtime was a new musical form. Prohibition was years away. Life, for most people, was steady, regular, and blissfully predictable.

“Ragtime” emphasizes the importance and influence the years 1900 to 1914 meant to America’s maturity as a nation and as a society. His elegant book was translated in 1981 into a mediocre movie that doesn’t capture the high points or significance of Doctorow’s work. Luckily, that wasn’t the only time “Ragtime” would become the basis for popular, dramatic entertainment. Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty’s 1997 musical theater adaptation of “Ragtime” is equal in elegance and scope to Doctorow’s original. It engrossingly depicts this crucial period, McNally’s savvy script that focuses on three distinct but intersecting families —  traditional WASP, middle class black, and immigrant Jewish — accompanied by Flaherty’s respectfully derivative Joplinesque music and Ahrens’s on-target and well-composed lyrics.

To my mind “Ragtime” is the most recent of the great American musicals. As a overall achievement, and affecting entertainment, it far eclipses “The Lion King,” which earned the 1998 Tony for Best Musical while “Ragtime” received awards for best book and score. It also has breadth and depth that unmatched by “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “Spring Awakening,” “The Book of Mormon,” or any other 21st century fare. I have been stirred every time I’ve seen the show, whether in its original Broadway production or at Temple Theaters, and I never fail to admire how astutely and meticulously McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty brought Doctorow’s masterpiece from the page or the stage while retaining all of its intrinsic value and consequential view of history. “Ragtime’s” creators even found intelligent, creative ways to insinuate actual figures from the last century’s turn — Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbitt — into their musical, just as Doctorow employed them to give extra texture and commentary to his novel.

Keith Baker exercises exemplary perception and sensitivity in bringing “Ragtime” to the Bristol Riverside Theatre stage. Baker’s production features carefully woven individual performances that keep “Ragtime” on a touchingly human scale while adroitly revealing all of Doctorow’s overriding ideas and themes and unobtrusively incorporating ancillary characters, such as the authentically historic figures, into the overall action.

Baker catches the sweep of Doctorow’s creation and presents it with thoughtfulness, acuity, and understanding that enhances but never takes away from the inherent entertainment in McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty’s piece. His production is a superb achievement that lets “Ragtime” be seen in its full glory while never losing sight that while it may cover a wide swath of history, it is essentially a story about three families who must find the compass to make their way in the emerging America.

The opening of Baker’s production for Bristol grandly puts “Ragtime” into full perspective.

As Flaherty’s stride sounds play, three cadres of characters enter the stage in sequence.

The first, dressed in crisp white, the men wearing days suits, the woman in long, neck-high late Victorian gowns that have white appliques embossed on white bodices and lace accenting cuffs and fringes, represent the Caucasian majority that defined Americans at this time, even though blacks, Jews, and others were present from colonial times. This group is proud and keeps tight steps as they speak of tradition that is subtly being influenced by distant music that has a new tone and beat.

The second group is just as well dressed, their finery a bit spiffier and more stylish, the men and women wearing more colors, patterns, and accessories than the first group, albeit in tasteful subdued cloth that indicates ready means and a sense of decorum. This is the black contingent, called The Negroes, that is populating Harlem, miles down the road from the Caucasian’s haven in New Rochelle. They are musicians and artists who have fun listening to the ragtime piano of Coalhouse Walker, a man of pride who uses his well-earned income to treat himself to finery like a Model-T Ford and to be generous to his significant other, Sarah. In addition to costumer Linda B. Stockton providing this group with livelier, more varied clothes, choreographer Stephen Casey loosens the dance steps to make the characters’ stances more relaxed and limber. Even a little sexy. A cakewalk or cross-step finds its way into the mix.

For the third brigade, Baker and Casey take their cue from Emma Lazarus’s “huddled masses,” as the immigrants, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Scandinavian as well as Jewish Eastern European gather at Ellis Island singing of their hopes and expectations. Stockton kept the palette of fall colors she used for the black characters, but instead of looking sharp and tailored, the immigrant group looks ragged and worn. Instead of the complacency of the whites, and the confidence of the blacks, this cadre seems apprehensive and confused. They stand stock still in a human heap, close to each other and moving only in nervous twitches.

NealBoxBaker has incisively used the perfect visual images to go with Flaherty’s representative music and Ahrens’s telling lyrics. The three groups, entering in order of arrival to American shores, and expressing their individual sentiments center stage before coalescing as one in the last chorus of the opening number, called “Ragtime,” make their presences felt and their stories known. The sequence excites your curiosity. You want to see what happens to each group and how they intersect to form a different, assimilated America. The effect is powerful and illuminating. It tells you so much.

One of Baker’s wiser decisions is to let individual passages of “Ragtime” breathe. Nothing seems rushed, but nothing is slow, self-conscious, or cloyingly self-referencing. Bakes trusts McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty’s material and lets it play out in a graceful yet evocative pageant that entices you to see more and to witness how the three groups develop.

The richness continues as each group, and its central characters, absorb you and the various story lines come into focus. On the sidelines, Henry Ford becomes almost a hero of sorts as he sings about democracy, industry, and production. Evelyn Nesbit shows how frivolity and sensationalism were of keen interest to magazine readers while Emma Goldman spouts unionism and left-wing politics, the socialism of Europe introduced to American ears, and Harry Houdini symbolizes the benefits and drawbacks of escape.

McNally follows Doctorow’s lead in giving most of the characters no names. Only the black characters are identified by more than their positions in their families. Otherwise, the white adults are called Father, Mother, and Mother’s Younger Brother while the character who represents the immigrants is called Tateh, Yiddish for father, until he redubs himself Baron Ashkenazy. The show’s primary narrator, the son of Father and Mother, is called Edgar.

Doctorow and McNally are equally adept at managing the intersection of the groups. The action in the book and the musical is triggered when Father, who has made money in manufacturing goods for patriotic events — bunting, flags, fireworks — uses his wealth and leisure to accompany Admiral Peary on an expedition to Antarctica. Mother, left to her devices, gets along well, but one day, while working in her New Rochelle garden, she finds a black infant who has been abandoned there to die. Immediately a search is made for the mother, and she is found. Police want to arrest her, and social workers want to claim the child, but Mother resists. In a quick decision, she declares she will assume care of both mother and child and wants no assistance, or interference, from authorities. You quickly realize that among other upheavals “Ragtime” chronicles, it also delves into suffrage and the emancipation of women. (It’s refreshingly  to see how conclusive Mother’s stance is compared with the official insanity that would go on in our ironically more Puritanical, government-intruding times,)

Of course, the police obey Mother. Even the pesky social worker is eventually sent packing. Coalhouse Walker is not so justly or respectfully treated. He, a Harlem musician of great skill and an avid following, is the father of the baby Mother finds. Coalhouse has been looking all over New York’s environs for Sarah, the woman he loves and finds her and his son in Mother’s protective care.

Because of Edgar’s openness, and Mother’s common sense, Coalhouse is welcome every Sunday to see his son even though Sarah is reluctant to make an appearance and leaves Mother and Edgar to entertain Coalhouse during these visits. Coalhouse in turn entertains them by playing their woefully out-of-tune piano. Father enters during one of these “concerts,” and he is befuddled by what he sees, but Mother prevails.

Tolerance looks as if it’s taking wing, at least under one woman’s roof, but that’s misleading. Mother and Edgar presage an attitude that has not yet taken hold. Father is not vehement in his disapproval, but he looks askance at black boarders and guests at his home. He is likely to be brusque with immigrants while Mother is disposed to be polite but friendly.

Others aren’t as amenable to change. As Coalhouse leaves New York City each week for Westchester County, he encounters men who hang around a fire house. They are immigrants of maybe 40 years standing with Irish and German names. They are dismayed by a young well-dressed black man driving a Ford that is polished to the nines and makes its owner appear even more regal, more assimilated in a middle class manner, than Willie Conklin and his crew can abide. They begin by taunting Coalhouse who answers them but makes no trouble. They then charge him a toll, which he pays to avoid confrontation. Not being satisfied with amelioration, Conklin and his men get physical and do significant damage to Coalhouse’s Ford and his peaceful stance, one promulgated by the writings and teachings of Booker T, Washington.

While tension is brimming in New Rochelle, especially when neither Coalhouse nor Father can elicit any action from the police in terms of the assault on Coalhouse and his property, Tateh is finding America a more difficult place to conquer than he imagined. Although he is making some money selling silhouettes he cuts on a Lower East Side street corner, he and his daughter encounter anti-Semitism. One man even has the temerity to ask what price Tateh would want to sell his daughter.

Disgusted with New York, Tateh goes to Boston, and then Philadelphia to seek refuge. In Philadelphia, a book of silhouettes he made for his daughter, a series of drawings which, when flipped with one’s thumbs against the seams of the paper, turn the pictures into a cartoon story, garners attention and is bought at a large profit. Soon, Tateh is making serious money selling his moving picture books. Later, when he, Father, Mother, Edgar, and Coalhouse, Jr. are all in Atlantic City, we see Tateh as a filmmaker, making one-reelers under the name of Baron Ashkenazy.

You see how textured and complex “Ragtime” is. The story involving Coalhouse may get a touch out of hand, but the way it unfolds lets you see more accurately how America is heading as a nation, especially when Father makes an unexpected move.

Baker never lets loose of that texture and the dramatic tension it engenders. Whether staging a big production number that shows the overall tenor or the times, illustrating the fascination someone like Harry Houdini or Evelyn Nesbit causes, zoning in on the adventurous but lost feeling of Mother’s Younger Brother, or setting an intimate scene between Tateh and his daughter or Tateh and Mother, Baker and his cast keep you absorbed. In every instance, they make the most of what McNally, Ahrens, and Flaherty give them. Whatever the scene or the song, the Bristol ensemble strives for and achieves maximum impact. “Ragtime” is not only an interesting, well-crafted show, it is spellbindingly performed, with Derrick Cobey, Leslie Becker, Ciaran Edward Barlow, Will Connell, and Michael Thomas Holmes being particularly affecting and poignant.

“Ragtime” is a show that appeals to the mind and the heart. It provides moments of incredible insight and perspicacity and equal, balancing instances of tenderness, warmth, and unrelenting emotion. Baker seals all of the flavors “Ragtime” offers into his production. The show evokes great joy, such as when Mother announces she will be responsible for Sarah and her baby or when Tateh realizes his ambition in Atlantic City, and great heartbreak, as when Coalhouse’s car is defiled or Sarah is killed in a sadly misinterpreted situation that smacks of some of today’s headlines.

You cannot help but respond to this show or this production. McNally’s book is smart and direct. Flaherty’s music is tuneful and catches the rag beat while also soaring in numbers like “The Wheels of a Dream” and “We Can Never Go Back to Before” or haunting in Ciji Prosser’s gorgeous singing of “Your Daddy’s Son.” Those songs could not be as powerful or as effective without Lynn Ahrens’s sharp lyrics, which can be as commentating and informative as they are dramatic.

Keith Baker is a careful director. He creates a well-paced, flowing production that never becomes stodgy or labored. One of the challenges of “Ragtime” is having the sequences with Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit fit smoothly and integrally into the show. Baker deftly keeps them part of the action and makes their scenes seem like a natural progression. By doing so, he keeps the times and the ideas that overarch Doctorow’s tale in our minds. Goldman, Nesbit, Ford, Morgan, and Houdini ground us to the era in which their contributions mattered greatly and helped to define the state of a seemingly benign yet turbulent America. Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, and Coalhouse are creatures of that period. Tateh and Mother show us a portal to a desirable future  in which Edgar, Tateh’s daughter, and Coalhouse, Jr. may foment more advancement.

Derrick Cobey cements his reputation as a versatile actor with his performance as Coalhouse. Last season, Cobey scored big with his sassy, disrespectful liar of a janitor in Arden’s Passage. In that role, Cobey showed the raw energy of the street. He was coarse, loud, and proud of himself for snowing the judge, jurors, and prosecutors who were weighing the guilt or innocence of Leo Frank.

As Coalhouse, Cobey is all strength and rectitude. He’s a man who can share a drink and a joke, and who is at ease with the bar crowd he entertains in New York and other towns. He is also a man of great self-respect who is proud of his talent at a jazz artist, loyal to the woman he loves, and eager to be the best father he can be to his son.

Coalhouse is a man of accomplishment. He dresses in fine tailored suits. He has a steady job. He owns a car he takes care of as well as he tends to Sarah and their child. Cobey conveys all of these fine traits and the nobility with which Coalhouse carries himself.

The only reason Cobey’s Coalhouse can be taunted by Willie Conklin’s firehouse thugs is because the odds are five against one. Even in dealing with these people, who are not open to reason and logic, Cobey’s Coalhouse starts gently and is willing to back off to prevent an altercation. This is not done in fear, and it certainly isn’t done because Coalhouse respects Conklin and his men. It is done in the name of peace and because of Coalhouse’s belief that the best strategy for a black man in a society that has not had to deal fairly or equally with black men is to be above the fray and let the law take care of the hooligan and lawbreaker. Following Booker T. Washington’s teaching, Coalhouse chooses to be true unto himself and not stoop to the level or temperament of his adversaries.

When events force Coalhouse to erupt emotionally and to demand justice by resorting to a vengeful series of vindictive, destructive acts, you see Cobey break. You know that last straw has come. Then, his Coalhouse turns fierce and fearsome because you see he is beyond caring about reason and doesn’t trust the word of the people who are trying to peddle it anyhow.

Cobey’s is a complete performance which allows Coalhouse to be the showoff in the club where he plays, be humble at Mother’s door after Edgar has blurted out Sarah is there, be prudent then increasingly indignant at the shenanigans of Conklin’s mob, be patient and tender with Sarah, show simultaneous joy and wonder at seeing his son, be the imaginer of dreams, and be the man who is driven to take the law into his own hands when he realizes it won’t be upheld any other way.

David Edwards and Leslie Becker are cast older than one might expect for Father and Mother. Edwards, wiry and sporting a big mustache, personifies a man who has come to believe his conventional way of living, and the success he had derived from a business his father started, gives him privileges in a country that is still forming but seemed settled, at least in New Rochelle, before immigrants arrived and slaves moved north. You can see Father’s rigidity when he is faced with the new, unhappy at his wife’s decisions, or dismayed by a rowdier brand of behavior that he’s used to at baseball games. You see Edwards attempting to understand his wife’s choices while also clinging to the verities he’s grown up to consider as the only ones a person can go by if he wants to lead an approved of, upstanding life. Edwards’s Father would be thrown by the ideas Mother expresses in her major number, “We Can Never Go Back to Before.”

Edwards is most interesting when Father makes a significant choice we would have supposed him to have the mettle to carry through.

Becker, in her white dresses, and wide-brimmed hats is the picture of Victorian femininity, even in America where Victoria does not reign or allegedly hold much sway. We are prepared to think her more conventional and more rule-driven than Father.

But Becker fools us. Faced with difficult alternatives, she always picks the sanest and most human. The few bits of advice she gives to Edgar are sound, and she sets a good example for her son when she eschews ideas about race and propriety to take Sarah and Coalhouse, Jr. under her wing.

In spite of a light voice, a soft exterior, and expressions of ‘Why me?’ and ‘What do I do now?,’ Becker shows Mother has as much strength and resolve as Cobey’s Coalhouse.

Mother is not daunted by having black guests and visitors in her home. Nor is she standoffish when addressed by Tateh at the New Rochelle train depot. Becker makes Mother a favorite because she never hesitates in being sociable and helpful. She may betray one second of doubt or thought, but before any rude or dismissive ideas can take hold, she is extended her hand in greeting and, in Sarah’s case, in an unconditional desire to help.

Mother, who was told not to think and to leave everything to her husband, and before him, her father, the most open-minded character of all. She moves where practicality and her personal sense of right and wrong lead her. Becker shows that. She is also a fine singer whose sweet soprano adds depth to Mother’s songs and who delivers “We Can Never Go Back to Before” as if it were an anthem.

Ciaran Edward Barlow is excellent as Edgar. His timing is particularly terrific as Barlow comes in on just the right beat when Edgar is blurting out information Mother of Father would rather have unknown or asking pertinent but precocious questions, specifically about the curves of Evelyn Nesbit.

Barlow plays Edgar without a hint of self-consciousness. He is as natural a child as you will find, and he takes in everything he sees or hears. In a way, Edgar narrates “Ragtime,” and as scenes unfold, you wonder how everything he observes will affect his future as a man in an America that is bound to become even more complex.

Ciji Prosser sings beautifully as Sarah, giving particular expression to “Your Daddy’s Hands,” a song she croons to her infant child as she thinks about Coalhouse and how much the son Coalhouse has never seen resembles him.

Michael Thomas Holmes exudes warmth and determination at Tateh, a man who can’t believe such an effort is needed to achieve dignity for him and his daughter.

Holmes gets to play many moods as Tateh arrives in America so hopeful and then quickly becomes disillusioned and regretful about his choice to come to America. Among those moods are elation and enthusiasm as his moving picture book takes off, and he becomes involved in the nascent motion picture industry, one that will insure an income that will keep him and his daughter living well.

Matt Leisy finds all of the right notes as Mother’s Younger Brother, a restless sort who wants to do something, important, at first to impress Evelyn Nesbit, later out of a growing sense, possibly promulgated by Emma Goldman, that he must be in the vanguard of people who bring about change.

Will Connell displays a lot of personality as Harry Houdini. Sarah J. Gafgen is all grit, determination, and quick answers as the activist, Emma Goldman. Chelsey Jean is properly giddy and sexy as Evelyn Nesbit, whose vaudeville career seems set after her husband kills a famous man out of jealousy towards her. Tamar Greene is all authority and respectability as Booker T. Washington.

Sofia Kalinda is nicely demure as Tateh’s daughter. Paul Weagraff delivers his song well as Henry Ford.

Jason Simms makes good use of the Bristol stage to accommodate about a dozen settings while keeping everything uncluttered. Linda B. Stockton’s costumes always hit their mark. Deborah Constantine is creative in helping Brother work out a fireworks display that spells Evelyn Nesbit’s name.

Stephen Casey’s choreography is lively and finds the right energy to match Flaherty’s homage of a score. Ryan Touhey’s band excellently created moods while playing Flaherty’s tunes.

“Ragtime” runs through Sunday, April 12 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $50 to $42 and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.

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