This review of the musical Ragtime at the Cultural Arts Playhouse was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Cultural Arts Playhouse (625 Old Country Road, Plainview, NY)
Ragtime is a musical with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, it tells the story of three groups living in the early 20th century: African-Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class white suburbanites living in New Rochelle, represented by Mother; and Eastern European immigrants, represented by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. Historical figures appearing in the musical include Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Perry and Emma Goldman. The music includes marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime.
The musical opened on Broadway on January 18, 1998 as the first production in the Ford Center for the Performing Arts. It closed on January 16, 2000 after 834 performances. It was nominated for 13 Tony Awards and won for Best Featured Actress, Original Score, Book and Orchestrations. A 2009 Broadway revival opened to critical acclaim at the Neil Simon Theatre on November 15, 2009 but due to high weekly running costs, it closed on January 10, 2010 after only 65 performances. Nevertheless, it received 7 Tony nominations, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction, Best Actress in a Musical and Best Featured Actor in a Musical.
If you haven't seen Ragtime, I highly recommend you catch this production at the Cultural Arts Playhouse. It is exceptionally well-done with fine performances by talented actors. The message of justice and of changing times is universal and the story, set in the first fourteen years of the 20th century is as relevant today as it was then and for every generation in between. The longer you live, the longer you hear "strange new music" and wonder "when they changed the song." Insightful people also realize "you can never go back to before" nor would you want you. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions."
Christopher M. Cooley brought substance and gravitas to the character of Harlem ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., who risks everything to obtain the justice he feels he deserves as a man. Steffy Jolin puts in a fine performance as Sarah, his girlfriend and the father of his child, whose sad story results in an even more tragic ending. Carmela Newman plays Mother, an upper-class white woman from a traditional family who undergoes the most radical change in perspective as she decides, while her husband is away on a year-long trip, to take in an abandoned black baby, and later, that baby's mother. In a subtle but powerful performance, Ms. Newman seduces and invites you to join Mother on her journey of discovery and enlightenment. Mike Newman more than holds his own as Tateh, a Latvian Jew seeking the American Dream for his daughter. The unexpected "happy family" that forms in the end will surprise you but reflects the norms bound to have resulted out of the "mosaic" culture that is now our own.
Two additional cast members are worthy of note. Jill Wilson Cohen shines as Emma Goldman. I felt as if I had met Emma Goldman personally after seeing Ms. Cohen's portrayal of her. I was also impressed with Ashley Nicastro in the role of Evelyn Nesbit, the "girl on a swing" who became infamous when her husband shot her lover. There are many excellent, songs in this musical including "Goodbye, My Love", "Henry Ford", "New Music", "The Wheels Of A Dream", "The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square", "Till We Reach That Day", "What A Game", "Atlantic City", "He Wanted To Say", "Back To Before" and "Make Them Hear You".
Make an effort to see Ragtime at the Cultural Arts Playhouse. You will not be disappointed. While there, if you run into Harry Houdini, don't forget to tell him to WARN THE DUKE!