Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Ragtime at The Gallery Players by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of Ragtime at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the Novel "Ragtime" by E.L. Doctorow
Produced by Jonathan-Bruce King
Director: Mark Harborth
Music Director: Leslie Wickham
Choreographer: Ryan Hendricks
Production Stage Manager: Liza Penney
Scenic Designer: Collin Eastwood
Costume Designers: Jerry Mittelhausere & Carol Strandburg
Lighting Design: Scott Andrew Cally
Fight Director: Joseph Travers
The Gallery Players
199 14th Street
Brooklyn, New York 11215
Reviewed 4/23/17

The basis of the Ragtime story involves three groups - Blacks from Harlem, Middle-Class Whites from New Rochelle, and Jewish Immigrants living and trying to survive on the Lower East Side. They live separately but the early 20th Century has brought in with it a new music, which appears destined to upset the old order. Political turmoil, labor unrest, and the boiling over of the melting pot seem to foreshadow conflicts that may be inevitable - at least according to E.L. Doctorow, whose novel the musical is based on. Edgar, the little boy, also seems to know the future and that World War I is coming. It doesn't matter how many times Edgar tells Houdini to "Warn The Duke" because events in history appear to be destined to occur in Doctorow's view, and as Mother says, "All the signs were there for anyone who wished to see them." 

Connecting the events and groups are celebrities and personalities of the era, including Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman. Racism, violence, and injustice are everywhere. Willie Conklin, a firefighter jealous of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black man who owns a brand new Ford Model T, demands a toll of $25.00 and then proceeds to trash the car when Coalhouse goes off to find a policeman. Willie says Coalhouse is "a man to be pitied" because he is "a nigger who doesn't know he's a nigger." However, later in the play, Coalhouse's Renegades in Harlem similarly refuse to let white Younger Brother pass on his way to offer his support to Coalhouse. They, too, demand money from him, say he's "a cracker who doesn't know he's a cracker," and suggest they should've "beat his ass." Finally, when immigrant Tateh rejects an offer to sell his daughter for cash, he exhibits a violent rage and might have killed the man who made the offer had not a policeman intervened. People are not all that different when it comes right down to it. I guess it is comforting to know "we didn't start the fire" and that "it was always burning since the world's been turning." Journey on!

The house on Broadview Avenue in New Rochelle was built as a sanctuary where the lives of those living in the community did not involve interactions with Negroes. But when Father leaves on a one-year expedition leaving Mother in charge ("Nothing much changes in a year. The world will not spin off its axis."), a lot changes when Mother takes responsibility for Sarah, an African-American woman who buried her newborn child in her garden. On a whim, she takes in Sarah and her child and lets Coalhouse Walker Jr., the baby's father, "court" Sarah for many months, which directly leads to the tragic events that are to follow. You have to understand that Mother was changing and was recognizing she had wishes and desires of her own. She started to make decisions, including that she would, under no circumstances, give up the baby for adoption. Sarah is killed. Coalhouse becomes a murderer and a fugitive and Father is rightfully upset with Mother for "opening the door to such chaos and pain." But Father is forced to change too and his struggle is equally painful. When on the expedition, Father refused to shake the hand of a black first mate, but in the end, when Coalhouse Walker Jr. thanks him for his "kindness to our family," Father says, "You're welcome" and shakes his hand. When Father first experiences the New Music and the winds of change, he wonders "when did they change the song?" and "why can't I sing this tune?" He is as disturbed by the decline in civilization and good societal manners (especially after bringing his son to a Giants game at the Polo Grounds) as Grandfather is (who only seeks "peace and quiet").

One of the funnier lines is when Evelyn Nesbit says, "I'm not an actress. I'm a personality." Her rejection of Younger Brother ("I could never love someone as Poor or as Thin or as Nice as you.") sets him off looking for a new purpose in life. Unfortunately, he becomes radicalized and helps Coalhouse "blow things up." Houdini's sage advice is "to break those chains with all you possess." In the case of Tateh that means finding a place to live free of "tenement stench" and "dirty immigrant streets." For Coalhouse, it's seeking revenge and justice against those who wronged him and although he will go off the deep end and be wronged again, he eventually listens to Booker T. Washington and tells his followers to "Go out and tell our story. Make them hear you!" As for Mother, once Father dies on the RMS Lusitania, and after a proper period of mourning, she is free to follow her own heart. She accepts Tateh's proposal to marry and the new American Family of Tateh and his daughter, Mother and her son Edgar, & Little Coalhouse, take off to California hoping "to arrive on the Wings of a Dream."

This Gallery Players production of Ragtime features an extraordinarily talented cast. Most impressive was Alex Bird, who is charismatic and believable as Younger Brother. James Zannelli brought power and stage presence to his role as Tateh (think Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof). Elyse Beyer was sexy and appealing as Evelyn Nesbit - The Girl On The Swing! She appeared to be having great fun portraying this sexy goddess. Heather Koren successfully exhibited the complexity of the conflicts Mother faced throughout the show. Finally, Marcus Jordan as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Renee Steadman as Sarah made a believable couple and had a good rapport with one another. I could feel Sarah's pain and Coalhouse's outrage as a result of their fine acting. On the negative side, Andrew Horton as Booker T. Washington misspoke a line or two, and Jay Braver was unremarkable as J.P. Morgan. Annie Sherman had the potential to be a dynamic Emma Goldman, but for whatever reason, we could hardly hear her lines. I was told by the producer she was "very sick" but not hearing what she was saying (and I sat in the third row) took away from my enjoyment of the show. The musical features 37 actors and some excellent choreography thanks to Ryan Hendricks. Mark Harborth, the Director, also deserves praise for his contribution to the final product.

It is not every day you get to experience such a fine production of Ragtime. I highly recommend you catch it at The Gallery Players sometime before May 14, 2017. Tickets cost $25.00 and can be purchased at www.GalleryPlayers.com. For more information, call 212-352-3101.

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