THEATER REVIEW: 20th century tale reminds us how little has changed

“Ragtime” (the Musical) at Mac-Haydn Theatre

“RACISM!” TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION, open your computer news-feed, your newspaper. There find the word racism nearly in tatters from extraordinary repetition. It appears with subjects of the day: inequality, immigration, police brutality, hate, sassy and abused women, wealth, patriotism! America the beautiful. America the brutal.

In “Ragtime,” the same issues appear, but the show is not about 2019. It’s a musical set in the early twentieth century. The piece is derived from a big thick novel by E. L. Doctorow, musicalized by composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and book writer Terrance McNally. It played on Broadway in the late 1990s and won many awards. It’s entertaining, a sort-of history lesson served with a teaspoon of sugar.

Do today’s historical similarities suggest that we Americans are running in place? Growing, not stronger or more civilized, just more out of breath? In “Ragtime,” a number of famous people turn up (Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, et al.); however, it is mostly the loving unknowns who fight back against racism.

Things that don’t quite work in this musical may be piled at the feet of the original creators:

Some of “Ragtime” feels like propaganda. Even when one agrees with the principles involved, propaganda served up without a cup of subtlety leaves a bad taste. Book writer Terrance McNally can err that way, and he does so in “Ragtime.”

Though composer Flaherty has made some beautiful music, the human brain can only absorb so many rousing, climactic song-endings before the device begins to fray. There are also too many half-step modulations. (Yes, half-step modulations are a time-honored musical theater device for building excitement, but it is wise to keep them sparse.)

The lyrics of Ahrens are plain to a fault.

There is good stuff in this production, and the Mac-Haydn team has provided gobs of it:

John Saunders’ staging is superb. He deploys the huge cast in manageable groups, giving them irregular diagonals, lines, circles, and clumps that honor the round stage without seeming to do so. However, more significantly, he steers author-sentimentality and cliché into scenes that read.

The script asks for audience tears to be teased out, if not actually jerked. A happy accommodation is achieved here by good acting and good direction. Some of that is particularly evident in scenes with Tateh (intelligently acted and beautifully sung by Gabe Belyeu.) There is also especially good singing and acting from Steve Hassmer as Father and Kylan Ross as Mother’s younger brother. As Coalhouse Walker, the black musician who gets pushed beyond tolerance, Tyrell Reggins is warm, hot, cool, and real. Rachel Rhodes-Devey brings strong femininity, period-truth, and a natural dignity to the role of Mother. When she and Belyeu stand almost motionless observing their children in Act II, it is the peak of the evening.

The orchestra is a colorful pad under the singers, sure and vigorous, and varied in orchestral sounds. (A sweet, nicely executed violin counter-melody for one of the ballads is especially ear-grabbing.) Conductor David Maglioni stretches the slow rag tempos in a way that Scott Joplin would have approved.

Jimm Halliday’s costumes usually make clothing sing. They are also character-appropriate, and actor-flattering. There is an underlining of the racism theme with whites on whites and dark shades on dark; then vivid black trim on the white clothing seems to make a predictive point. Of course, there are the very-Halliday, voluminous polka-dot skirts with bright red crinolines. (They disappear too fast!). In Act II, a long white coat over a dark suit for the character of Coalhouse seems to define him.

Even though I saw the original Broadway version, I don’t remember how much of this costuming might have become “Ragtime” tradition; but from Halliday’s hands the collection is right.

The set, with its high, repeated Roman arches and picket fences are a nice shorthand for place, and the five stage levels allow Saunders to separate his expressive groups and isolate individual actors.

At one point a boy desperately asks, “Why is everyone so angry?!” The show answers without hesitation: American Racism.

“Ragtime” runs through August 4 at Mac-Haydn Theatre.

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