REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
When the musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, hit Broadway in January 1998, an almost manic anticipation of the show’s opening was dampened by critics such as The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, who called it “sanitized” and “a show without a subconscious,” despite ultimately winning Tony awards for Best Book (Terence McNally) and Best Score (Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty).
Since its debut, the years have been kind to Ragtime. Thanks in part to a retooling of the production for its 2009 Broadway revival, which made it more affordable to produce by regional and community theater production companies, Ragtime has grown in stature. Today, it is an event to be savored and celebrated, a sweeping diorama of life in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The original production cost a whopping $10 million to produce, and was rarely staged except by only the most well-heeled companies. Even after the 2009 revival, in which the opulent, expensive sets were reduced to playing the scenes with skeletal scaffolding and minimal scenery, the task of accommodating the oversized cast, full orchestra, and sumptuous costumes was still a challenge met by few directors.
In 3D Theatricals’ recent production of the show, which was staged at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton and the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, director T. J. Dawson picked up the Ragtime gauntlet and met the show head on. The result was one of the most stirring, emotional, and stunningly beautiful productions one will ever see on the stage. In Dawson’s words, it was “the most daunting, thrilling, and challenging production I have ever been involved with.”
Using ragtime, the revolutionary syncopated musical style championed by Scott Joplin, as a framework, Ragtime examines politics, class struggle, racism, immigration, and upheaval of social mores in a way that few musicals have. The characters are divided into three major groups: the nameless upper-middle-class white family of New Rochelle, New York, African Americans that are the targets of ingrained bigotry, and equally marginalized immigrants from Eastern Europe. To these are added a fourth group, historical figures such as Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, and Harry Houdini, all of whom had major impacts on American culture during this period and who prove to be inspirational, motivating icons for the show’s major characters. No musical intertwines a more disparate group than this so seamlessly with such beauty and elegance, striking moralistic salvos on a number of levels.
The story is held together by Stephen Flaherty’s faithful adaptation of ragtime motifs into his score: the simple and graceful syncopated melodies, along with Lynn Ahrens’ eloquent and moving lyrics. The combination of these form the “strange, insistent music” that was at its height during this period. Each song is an eleven o’clock number that results in roaring ovations, ranging from the sweeping optimism of “Wheels on a Dream” and the tenderness of “Sarah Brown Eyes” to the exuberance of “Gettin’ Ready Rag” and the sweet nostalgia of “New Music.”
Two performers familiar to Ventura County audiences appeared in the cast. Christanna Rowader, who has appeared in such shows as Cabrillo Music Theatre’s 1776 and the Actors Repertory Theatre of Simi’s The Music Man, landed the plum role of Mother, a casting that surprised her as much as anybody (see our interview with Rowader in our October 16 blog). John McCool Bowers, a stentorian presence in shows such as Simi’s Children of Eden and My Fair Lady, played millionaire tycoon J. P. Morgan, as well as other sundry ensemble characters.
It would be impossible to imagine a more perfect performance than the one turned in by Christanna Rowader as Mother. In a talkback session after Saturday’s matinee, Rowader modestly told the audience that McNally’s book made it easy for her to play Mother, but there is much more to it than that. Rowader’s nuanced performance as the turn-of-the-century housewife who achieves growth and courage was nothing short of magnificent. After playing the relatively lightweight roles of Marian Paroo (The Music Man) and Christine Colgate (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), Rowader faced a huge challenge head on, providing ample doses of humanity, compassion, and elegance in her beautifully rounded performance. Living sixty years before the feminist movement and more than a decade before women could vote, Mother is one of the most noble and heroic characters in musical theater. Rowader’s superb and sensitive acting skills were enhanced by her wondrous voice, especially on her solo showpiece: the exquisite “Back to Before,” which brought rousing cheers from the audience. Rowader has it all. She is an astonishing talent.
In addition to his booming baritone, John McCool Bowers imbues any production with solid acting skills and a presence that can take over even a scene with dozens of characters on stage. His J. P. Morgan, for which he had to don a forty-pound full-length costume, was magisterial and powerful. Every time you looked at the stage, Bowers was there; in addition to Morgan, he played a judge, a doctor, an attorney, a reporter, and even a boorish baseball fan.
By focusing on these two performers, we should not discount the rest of the cast, which included a stunning array of talent: Rufus Bonds, Jr. as the mercurial ragtime musician-turned vigilante Coalhouse Walker Jr., Daebreon Poiema as the ill-fated Sarah, Gary Patent as the Latvian Jewish immigrant Tateh, Craig McEldowney as the stuck-in-his-ways Father, Tyler Miclean as Younger Brother, the rebel in search of a cause, Jimmer Bolden as the statesmanlike civil rights leader Booker T. Washington, and Jean Kauffman as revolutionary anarchist Emma Goldman. Young Donovan McFann, a middle school student who has been performing in his school’s drama program for five years, put in a marvelous performance as the prescient, precocious Edgar, despite suffering from a debilitating bout of stomach flu.
The wonderful nineteen-piece orchestra was directed by Julie Lamoureux. Dana Solimando provided the marvelous choreography, while Jean-Yves Tessier designed the atmospheric lighting. The production utilized the glorious costumes from the original 1998 Broadway production as well as an authentically restored Model “T” Ford automobile.
Eighteen years after its world premiere in Toronto, Ragtime continues to be relevant. From the tabloid fodder that was Evelyn Nesbit, (“I’m not an actress; I’m a personality!”) to one-percenters J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford, its multiple themes still resonate today, the overriding message being: the more things change, the more things remain the same. One thing is for certain, though. As the years continue to go by, Ragtime will be enshrined in the Broadway pantheon alongside Oklahoma! and Show Boat as an all-American classic, and one of the greatest musicals ever written.