Stephen Schwartz knows a good musical when he sees one. Six years ago when the composer of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked performed his concert act at the Edison Theatre, I asked Schwartz, "What's the last musical you saw that really knocked you out?" "Ragtime," he replied in a conversation that ran in Riverfront Times in February 2003. "I thought Ragtime was a great musical. [In the five years since I saw it] I've liked other shows. But in terms of being a classic musical, I thought Ragtime was fantastic."
If you define "great" literally, in terms of vast size that exceeds the conventional, then Ragtime is indeed a great musical. So much so, that this adaptation of the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow is too ambitious for most theaters to even attempt; thus Ragtime is infrequently staged. So for me the current combined effort between the Washington University Performing Arts Department and the Black Rep has been keenly anticipated. At the same time, great expectations often lead to great disappointments. So it's with both exhilaration and relief to be able to report that this Ragtime exceeds expectations.
It is a veritable triumph.
Almost from the moment the show begins and an ensemble of nearly 50 performers deftly sings and dances the Prologue, a musical narrative that both introduces our principal characters and sets forth the evening's principal theme — the intrusion of immigrants and blacks upon the complacency of white America at the turn of the twentieth century — chances are that you will, as I did, instantly forget that this is essentially a student production. These students rose to the challenge of being treated as professionals, and director Ron Himes (producing director of the Black Rep) was inspired by the enthusiasm of his malleable cast to do outstanding work. This alchemy of amateur and professional makes for potent and thrilling theater.
How gratifying to be exposed to an American musical that is so unrelentingly audacious. We are given a survey course in pre-World War I America. We enter New York City through Ellis Island and are exposed to the tawdry glamour of the vaudeville circuit; we watch baseball being played at the Polo Grounds and hear ragtime being performed in a Harlem nightclub. These and so many other facets of the American experience are enacted on Jim Burwinkel's formidable unit set, a façade of brick and steel that is both rock-solid and ethereal, for it can represent everything from a Lower East Side sweatshop to an Atlantic City beach.
Although Terrence McNally's script must of necessity distill and even eliminate much of Doctorow's plot, it's amazing how dense and nuanced are the story lines that remain, in part because the narrative is not restricted to the libretto. Every line in every song by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens moves Ragtime forward. In the opening number we're told that "there was a distant music, a strange insistent music, the music of an era exploding, a century spinning in riches and rags." That same insistence informs this entire score. These lyrics don't allow us a moment to relax; they are crackling with ideas. "Journey On," "Wheels of a Dream," "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square," "Gliding," "Our Children," "Back to Before" are just some of the songs that comprise one of the most enthralling scores in the recent American musical theater.
Perhaps I should single out individual performers — the integrity of Shaun Hudson's Coalhouse Walker, the innate decency of Micah Herstand's immigrant Jew, the soft spine of Renae Adams' Mother — but to mention more members of this impressive ensemble would eat up the limited space that also should be accorded to Bonnie Kruger's costume designs, the lighting by Sean Savoie, Millie Garvey's choreography and Charles Creath's musical direction. Reviews should not become checklists. Better instead that a viewer takes the time to read every name in the playbill, because they are all, on both sides of the stage, contributors to a collaboration of the highest order, participants in an artistic vision whose realization on the Edison Theatre stage will knock you out.
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