After watching the new StageWorks Fresno production of “Ragtime,” you might be surprised that one of my strongest reactions was to a supporting character: the radical anarchist Emma Goldman.
I wanted to call out to her: You go, Emma!
The themes in this sprawling musical tapestry — a swirl of ideas about race relations, immigrant dreams, women’s rights and the promise of a grand, forward-looking country on the precipice of a calamitous new century — might be keyed toward events that took place more than a hundred years ago. But they still seem achingly relevant today, especially in this earnest production. When Goldman, portrayed with gusto by a fierce Julie Lucido with a bun in her hair and fire in her voice, laments the immigrant children in New York’s fetid Lower East Side dying of malnutrition, you feel her outrage. And when the ensemble breaks into the song “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” spinning in circles around her with a crisp and angry energy, the moment sizzles.
With its huge cast, multiple storylines and locations, challenging vocals and generally somber sense of self-importance, “Ragtime” is a tremendous challenge to produce. Director Joel Abels, as always, often conjures great moments out of the barest minimum of theater resources. I think it’s an inspiring and solid production with strong individual performances. For several reasons, however, I don’t think the opening-night performance measured up to the brilliance of the two preceding StageWorks productions, “The Light in the Piazza” and “[title of show.]“
For those who don’t know the “Ragtime” story, I strongly encourage theater-goers to read the synopsis in the program before diving into this minimalist production. As befits the sprawling epic novel by E.L. Doctorow that serves as source material, the musical is a dense, complicated story that along with the ambitious themes I’ve already mentioned weaves three major groups of fictional characters together with historical characters such as Goldman, Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington.
The three major groups are grouped by ethnicity. The white storyline centers on a well-to-do New Rochelle family headed by Father (Calvin Hoff), the wealthy owner of a fireworks factory. He’s also an amateur explorer, and in the play’s opening scenes, he leaves with Admiral Perry to explore the North Pole, leaving his wife, Mother (Sara Price) in charge.
We follow the African-American storyline through the eyes of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Harrison Mills), an accomplished ragtime piano player; and Sarah (Camille Gaston), the woman he loved “but not wisely and not too well.”
The third group, representing America’s immigrants at the turn of the century, is represented by Tateh, a Jewish widower who comes to the U.S. with his young daughter in search of a better life.
As the storylines converge, the narratives tangle upon each other. The lives of Sarah and Coalhouse become bound up with that of Mother and Father after tragedy strikes. Tateh and his daughter, too, become part of the New Rochelle family’s lives in surprising ways.
Abels draws some big, sweet and profound performances from his cast. Especially notable is Price, as Mother, in gorgeously sturdy vocal form, who offers wit, wisdom and just the right amount of cheekiness (and, in some later zippy scenes with Tateh, dare we say longing) to keep her character from feeling Hallmark-card generic. (She sings a well-crafted “Back to Before” that knows when to hold back and when to soar.) In the same tier, Benjamin McNamara is a wonderfully eloquent and fiery Younger Brother.
Harrison Mills, in his major theater debut, has a promising stage intensity as Coalhouse, though I kept wanting more emotional connection with the audience. Camille Gaston, who plays Sarah, sings a stirring “Your Daddy’s Son.”
Brent Moser, as Tateh, offers one of the stronger acting turns in the show, and he’s absolutely charming in his second-act transformation. (I think his character, who effects a heavy accent, would have greater impact if Moser would “speak sing” more of his notes rather than try to vocalize all the way through.) Calvin Hoff, as Father, needs to loosen up a little in his demeanor as Father. (Yes, the character is uptight, but we need more a sense of humanity.)
In terms of the historical characters, standouts along with Lucido are Julian L. Walker as an imposing Booker T. Washington, Miguel Gastelum as a bruising J.P. Morgan, Chris Meisner as an introspective Houdini and Kelly Hall as an athletic Evelyn Nesbit (though on opening night she needed more of the blazing smile of a vaudeville star).
Lisa Schumacher’s costume design is lush, comprehensive and impressive. Conductor David Sarkisian’s orchestra adds immeasurably to the performance, and Michael Anteramian’s piano ragtime solos are a highlight.
So what is it about this “Ragtime” that didn’t quite work for me?
One thing has to do with the way Abels has chosen to configure the Severance Theatre. A simple proscenium-style platform is backed by a beautifully crafted see-through wall that looks like a giant curio cabinet. Various Victorian implements — some used as props — sit in the cubbyholes. (Chris Mangels based his scenic design on a design by Michael P. Kramer.) On one side, a tiny staircase and elevated platform serve as an attic space, so pivotal in the scene in which the character of Sarah, who tries to bury her illegitimate child in the New Rochelle family’s yard, finally descends out of her self-imposed exile.
In front of the stage, at floor level, is a large center space flanked by seating on three sides. This thrust-stage-style space is where many of the larger ensemble numbers take place.
The result, space-wise, feels like an awkward hybrid. The “stage” isn’t really one, offering few of the advantages that are normally associated with a proscenium configuration, including the framing of the action for the audience by creating a delineated space in which the “magic” happens. (Jennifer Sullivan has few lighting options to intensify the impact of the space.) Though the audience is relatively close to the stage, it still feels distant and removed.
When the action shifts to floor-level, it somehow feels jarring.
Another of my issues with the production is its minimalist scenic design. This is a “Ragtime” that does not have a Model T, which plays a critical role in the storyline. We do not get to see the tenement squalor of New York, the chiseled splendor of J.P. Morgan’s library, the gears and implements of Henry Ford’s assembly line. It’s not that I was expecting elaborate sets, but I wanted at least a hint of important props and visuals, particularly when it came to the floor-level part of the performance level. (This was done very effectively using select pieces of furniture in “The Light in the Piazza.”) When we do get a concrete visual, like in the case of Tateh’s cart, it adds significantly to the scene.
Lastly, the choreography — ably set by Kaye Migaki — and some stage movement felt tentative on opening night. It just didn’t have the crisp confidence it needed. The parasols belonging to the white ladies in the opening number have to open at precisely the same time, else the moment looks sloppy. The “Getting Ready Rag” can’t just be competent, it has to be ebullient. The “Henry Ford” number has to be so briskly calibrated that you feel as if you’re actually watching an assembly line. The one ensemble choreographed number that truly felt confident and magical to me was “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square.”
Are such reservations from me deal-breakers when it comes to this show? In no way. There is much to laud here, including the sheer ambition of staging such a large-scale musical in an alternative space. (Thinking back to the simplicity of “[title of show]” compared to this production, they’re very different beasts.) I’m sure as the run progresses, the confidence level will increase and the stage movement reach new heights of precision.
Plus, there’s no mistaking the power of “Ragtime’s” music. I defy you to listen to the roof-raising first-act finale, “Til We Reach That Day,” without feeling a call to arms. Gospel soloist Dee Smith belts it all the way to the Tower Theatre.
And then there’s Emma Goldman. Her words still resonate today in a society groping with inequality in so many ways. “Let us at last make this the land of opportunity for all people, not just the owners,” she cries. That tune, sadly, doesn’t seem to go out of style.