E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime tells a sprawling story of an America in a time of change (when isn’t it, you might ask?). But it also tells deeply personal stories, and that is apparent—and very effective—in the current Asolo Rep production of the musical version of Doctorow’s novel, set more than a century ago.
While there are many characters, some real, some fictional, in Doctorow’s original, and thus, onstage, much opportunity for pageantry and size, in this presentation (directed by Peter Rothstein) the scale of the Broadway adaptation is reduced—far fewer cast members, smaller orchestra, etc. And yet the truth and timeliness of what Doctorow’s story explores, with its insights into class, race and gender issues, along with the immigrant experience and even the tabloid lure of celebrity, are in no way reduced. Perhaps it’s easier for us to be drawn into the lives of the personalities onstage in a more intimate way.
Those personalities include, chiefly, a white upper-middle-class family in New Rochelle, New York, headed by Father (Bret Shuford) with an on-the-verge-of-an-awakening wife, Mother (Britta Ollmann), their young son (William Garrabrant) and her younger brother (David Darrow); a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, Tateh (Sasha Andreev), and his young daughter (Gigi Spagnolo); and African-American musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Jared Joseph) and his beloved Sarah (Danyel Fulton). Also thrown into the mix: real-life showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Billie Wildrick), illusionist Harry Houdini (Benjamin Dutcher), anarchist Emma Goldman (Leslie Becker) and activist Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton), among others.
Coalhouse is a ragtime musician, and his piano is both a strong visual symbol and a useful device throughout the production, standing in for the Model T car of which he is very proud. Those who have read the book, or seen either the film or stage versions of Ragtime, will know how crucial a role that car plays.
But the actors here take turns being members of the ensemble as well, interacting with each other in ways that bring the specific time and place to life while still summoning up the past’s resemblance to the present. They’re aided, of course, by the production’s designers, from Michael Hoover’s set (a vertical, tenement-looking building front with doors that frequently admit cast members) to Duane Schuler’s lighting, casting shadows emphasizing actors’ silhouettes, echoing the papers ones Tateh creates with scissors, to Kelli Foster Warder’s choreography, which uses dances of the period, like a cakewalk, to convey the energy and spirit of the time.
The score by Stephen Flaherty, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is alternately stirring, poignant and entertaining, often pointedly revealing social commentary; and it’s masterfully delivered by music director Steve Orich and his nine-member orchestra, which can sound much larger. And while the cast may have been downsized, Terrence McNally’s adaptation of Doctorow’s work misses nothing significant—which does mean the show comes in at more than two-and-a-half hours.
But that shouldn’t affect the audience’s involvement in the production, imaginatively reconceived by Rothstein and enacted with skill and power by the cast. One hates to single any out, but at the same time it’s hard not to praise Ollmann, fine both vocally and dramatically, especially on “Back to Before”; Joseph as Coalhouse, charismatic and compelling; Andreev as the desperate Tateh; and Darrow as the equally desperate Younger Brother—not poor or hungry, like Tateh, but seeking meaning to his life.
Kudos, too, to Garrabrant as The Little Boy; Dutcher as Houdini and bigoted fireman Willie Conklin; and Shuford as Father—a man who at least sometimes tries to be better than he is.
Ragtime continues through May 27; for tickets call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.