Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and E L Doctorow
Review by Philip Fisher
In Ragtime the novel, E L Doctorow proved himself to be one of the great namedroppers of all time. He clearly intended both to present the story of the birth of modern America from the point of view of three different sectors of society and also to put his story into a social context.
In writing the book for the musical, Terrence McNally has chosen to play down the social context so that many of the biggest names have the smallest bit parts. You hardly notice Henry Ford, J P Morgan or Harry Houdini, which is perhaps a shame.
What McNally does achieve in a relatively faithful transfer of novel to stage is a good feel for the internal frictions of a society: America at the start of the twentieth-century. He is greatly assisted in this by excellent, simple design from Richard Jones. This eschews flashy gimmicks in favour of period costumes and a two-level set with the orchestra, somewhat unusually upstage, above and behind the action. He is also greatly assisted by superb lighting from Howard Harrison, a man who has received four Olivier nominations for Best Lighting Designer.
The plot centres around three individuals representative of their social sets, Maria Friedman plays the unnamed Mother of a wealthy WASP family that somehow finds itself entangled with an unfortunate black activist, Coalhouse Walker Junior, played by Kevyn Morrow, and a Eastern European Jewish immigrant, Graham Bickley as Tateh.
Around these characters, McNally, together with lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, compose a musical with a cast of around fifty. The main action relates to the racist abuse that Coalhouse Walker faces and his inability to obtain justice. As this plot moves along, he finds himself supported not only by his own young, black vigilante but also by Mother's Younger Brother, an explosives expert played by Matthew White, who performs well but looks a little old for the part.
While the Coalhouse Walker story is building up to an explosive and dramatic climax, beautifully realised on stage by director, Stafford Arima, Tateh, who wanders around the country accompanied by his abused daughter, changes from silhouette artist to become one of the early pioneers of moving pictures. By the end of the play, he has taken on the title of Baron and is wealthy enough to marry Mother after Father's unfortunate demise on the Lusitania.
The performances are generally good and the singing of Kevyn Morrow as Coalhouse Walker, often accompanied by the stunningly beautiful voice of Emma J Thomas as his lost love Sarah, is special. Maria Friedman also does well as a kind of anchor around which the musical plays out. They are well supported by good acting, particularly from Graham Bickley, Vincent Pirillo as the bluff, sardonic Grandfather and Rebecca Thornhill as the rich showgirl Evelyn Nesbit.
Some of the lyrics are rather clichéd and the music veers between unimaginative and very exciting. The opening song Ragtime acts as a prologue introducing all of the characters and, together with Wheels of a Dream and What Kind of a Woman, is a real showstopper.
Ragtime achieves what it set out to; it provides a good evening's entertainment and has enough depth to provide some intellectual interest to accompany the song and dance. There is, though, a nagging feeling that it would have been even better had it been cut by about half an hour.