Who said cutbacks are bad? That’s not the case in the sweeping revival of Ragtime currently playing at the Neil Simon theatre, where minimalist staging and simple props set the stage for a grandiose, thrilling production that is nothing short of breathtaking. One might wonder why producers would revive this particular show, when the original production closed less than a decade ago. But the answer is clear: the show is too good to not be seen.
The historical musical with a book Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is a story of three families with vastly different social and economic circumstances. Based on the novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime is a story of love, loss, racism, prejudice and, above all, hope.
I know. I would probably be rolling my eyes as well if I read that sentence. But there are so many other words to truly sum up the emotions invoked by the sweeping score of this show, superbly acted by a cast that consists of many newcomers to Broadway. The upper-class white family of Mother (Christiane Noll), Father (Ron Bohmer), Grandfather (Dan Manning), Mother’s Younger Brother and Little Boy (Christopher Cox), live comfortably in New Rochelle, New York. Everything is cheerful and calm for them until they meet Sarah (Stephanie Umohand Colehouse) and Coalhouse (Quentin Earl Darrington), a black woman and man who consequently send their lives into a tailspin of change, both social and political.
It is the awareness, and fear of, this change that moves the plot of this musical, as the change hovers just under the surface of the pretty family living in a pretty house. And it is the music that is the metaphor of this change. It is rare that more than a few minutes pass without a song being sung in this show. And believe me, that is a good thing. The score of Ragtime is sweeping, grand, beautiful and challenging, and this is a cast that does it justice. The soaring “Wheels of a Dream,” the crushing “Your Daddy’s Son” and the soulful “Make Them Hear You” are just a few of the highlights from the score.
Such a lush score would seem juxtaposed on a set that resembles a production warehouse, but the stark, minimalistic set only enhances the show, giving even more focus to the cast. Almost all of the songs speak of change – hope for it, fear of it, or weary resignation to it. While many may be weary of this key word from President Obama’s campaign and first year in office, the change that pulses just beneath the surface in Ragtime is a vital one, and Mother is the personification of it. In this rich and vibrant role, the seemingly demure wealthy wife and mother grows and changes in unexpected ways, realizing the wrongdoings of her own life as well as her husband’s. Her brother, played by Bobby Steggert in a performance of surprising depth and darkness, also involves himself in social activism, to the surprise and dismay of his family. The cast of real and fictional historical characters also features Booker T. Washington (Eric Jordan Young), Harry Houndini (Jonathon Hammond), espousing the ideal that an immigrant can make good, anarchist Emma Goldman (Donna Migliaccio) and vaudville star Evelyn Nesbit (Savannah Wise).
Rounding off the leading characters are Robert Petkoff and Sarah Rosenthal as the immigrant Tateh and his daughter, who both deliver touching performances of newcomers to America searching for their chance for success in the land of opportunity. Their innocent hope is both inspiring and ironic to watch, as are the dreams of Sarah and Coalhouse, both portrayed in deeply moving, powerhouse performances.
It’s a bitter mix to acknowledge the hope and despair of living in America then and now. The relevance of Ragtime in today’s world is undeniable as we read daily of a shattered economy, whispers of racism on mainstream news stations and post-election weariness as we realize that change cannot be accomplished as easily as we had hoped for. Scenes where J.P. Morgan Chae (Michael X. Martin) and Henry Ford (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) speak of opportunity and prosperity elicited sad and sarcastic laughter, but also perhaps a remind of the hope that America still must cling to.