'Ragtime' more relevant than ever in commendable touring production

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- All the black woman wanted was help for her husband, whose car was vandalized by a bigoted fire chief and his cronies. The seemingly harmless, helpless lady sought assistance from a visiting vice presidential candidate at a rally, but authorities quickly clubbed her to death.

The excuse? It looked like she had a gun.

This scene in the musical "Ragtime," which will reach Toledo in May, takes place not in 2016 America, but in the early 1900s of New Rochelle, N.Y.

A mostly solid production of the colorful, disturbing, heartbreaking, humorous, intense and intensely moving musical is touring the U.S., on its way to Toledo after recently playing at Florida venues.

What's that saying? The more things change...the more they stay the same.

You could make a strong case that there isn't a musical today dealing with as many timely issues and concerns than "Ragtime."

This show comes to you directly from today's headlines, hopes, worries, heartaches, living nightmares and overwhelming feelings.

Racism, immigrants and the fight for the American Dream, terror, change occurring at a pace faster than some can keep up with, police brutality against blacks...These issues are all present in this musical with more than two dozen characters.

The issues are set against a backdrop of an America that's quickly turning into a melting pot of cultures, a land where new inventions and developments are springing up, fueling the hope for growth and success. The musical's title derives from the period's style of music: Ragtime, a style with a syncopated or "ragged" rhythm.

The opening, title song's lazy first notes suggest the comfortable, quiet life of a white family living contentedly with homogeneity in a just built house in suburban New York City. As the song progresses, it picks up pace and bursts with activity as we're introduced to the many characters who will intersect--and change--the WASP family's life.

The song provides much of the necessary exposition. We meet the white family, comprising characters named only Mother, Father, Mother's Younger Brother, and The Little Boy (it's strange that none are named except the child, Edgar, who's listed in the program only as "The Little Boy." Stranger yet, he has an ability to foretell the future, which seems out of place in such a realistic show.

For the performance I saw at Coral Springs Center for the Arts, the youngster was played solidly with a precociousness and curiosity by Jordan Santiago, who alternates the role with another boy.

The two other families consist of black musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah (a reserved, nervous and tender Leslie Jackson) and their baby; a Jewish European immigrant named Tateh and his daughter, called only "The Little Girl" (at the performance I saw, an obedient, quiet Leilani Santiago, Jordan's brother.)

The lives of these families intersect. Much chaos, heartbreak and hope happen before the bittersweet ending.

"Ragtime" is meaty and layered, hardly your "escapist" musical with dancing girls, showtunes and laughs. That's not to say the musical doesn't have its share of light material. The fictional families interact with historical characters such as chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (a scatterbrained, playful Jillian Van Niel, who plays her as basically a sex object).

In the playful number "Crime of the Century," replete with colorful, clownish costumes, characters re-enact, vaudeville-style, the trial of Harry K. Thaw (Alec Mathieson), Nesbit's husband who's accused of killing her lover, Stanford White (John Barsoian).

This musical is so dark and heartbreaking at times, comedic relief is necessary.

Other historical characters are black author, educator and orator Booker T. Washington (a polished, passionate Jeffrey Johnson II), Ford Co. founder Henry Ford (John Anker Bow, commanding in a non-forceful manner), industrialist J.P. Morgan (a proud Todd Berkich), escape artist and immigrant Harry Houdini (a nimble, dramatic Mark Alpert) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Sandy Zwier, in a forceful yet seemingly effortless performance filled with convincing zeal).

While Nesbit and the cranky character called only "Grandfather" (the latter played as your typical curmudgeon by Bob Marcus) are present mostly for comic purposes, Walker drives the narrative. He's admirably played by Chris Sams, who imbues Walker with such passion in a multi-faceted performance you almost feel the sweating actor will have an out-of-body experience. Sams convincingly imparts rage, love, determination and mourning. Just listen to that piercing, heart-shattering scream at a time of great loss for Walker.

Matthew Curiano makes Tateh's devotion and dedication to his daughter as palpable and touching as his reaction to receiving a $1 bill. Curiano's Tateh cradles the bill as though it were a cure for cancer and kisses it as passionately as though it were another of his children. The actor also nails Tateh's European accent.

When this immigrant becomes a successful filmmaker, Curiano imbues him with triumph, like a small child nimbly and giddily skipping around at just the toy store for which he'd been searching during Christmas.

Troy Bruchwalski's Father has an impatient, unyielding and exasperated manner. He's played as a rational, family man, but one who struggles to adapt to the myriad of changes that occurred while he was away on a trip.

Kate Turner plays Mother with a quiet, content grace in the beginning. She beautifully transitions into a responsible, mature and determined woman as the play progresses. Turner's Mother pours her soul into "Back to Before," a song in which the character sings about how things will never be the same. She sings it at first with quiet nostalgia and then forceful frustration and realization pours out of her as she realizes she and her husband can't go back to the way things were. It's Turner's strongest moment on stage.

Donald Coggin also turns in a strong performance as Mother's Younger Brother, playing him with wide-eyed, dangerous eccentricity and nervous energy without turning him into a caricature.

Coggin imbues him with some humanity. While he's worthy of pity at times, that's hardly the case with bigoted Irish fire chief Willie Conklin (played as a cocky thug and with a convincing accent by Joe Callahan).

The crowded cast of characters perform on scenic designer Kevin Depinet's set, which includes a two-sided staircase. It helps create a striking stage picture as the curtain opens: Blacks, whites and immigrants are positioned into a triangular shape, kind of foreshadowing the bittersweet ending.

With so many characters, "Ragtime's" hard to stage. But director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge keeps the traffic moving smoothly, paces the production well, brings out the characters' humanity and tells the story through movement. In the beginning, each family (clad in appealing period costumes that differentiate them by Gail Baldoni) moves within their respective group, stops suddenly and looks askance at the other families before continuing on their way. It's as though each family's life is interrupted by unfamiliar individuals who make them uncomfortable; each sticks to their own kind at first, because that's what they're used to. As the show progresses, Milgrom has the whites, blacks and immigrants move more freely and comfortably among each other.

This production differs from the original Broadway mounting, which was more elaborate scenery wise. Milgrom's mostly minimalist approach leaves some actions to our imagination, allowing us to focus on the characters and their plight.

The production falls short in some areas. Actors sometimes speak or sing before stepping into their spotlight. And while projection designer Mike Tutaj, who mostly depicts clouds, reinforces sad, foreboding or dark scenes with the image of a threatening gray sky, he sometimes uses that image for upbeat scenes.

Novelist E.L. Doctorow, who wrote the richly expansive novel on which the play is based, and musical book writer Terrence McNally weave the stories of the three families together in a seamless manner without forcing the tales to merge.

The passion-filled story and likable characters endear us to the tale as does the powerful, varied, mood-enhancing score, sung naturally with zest by the cast.

I overheard an audience member say "Ragtime" is one of her favorite musicals. She said she wishes school-age children could see it. No argument there; it's best to get them started thinking about today's important issues, our country's history and to get them in a theater going habit at a young age.

 

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "Ragtime"

WHEN AND WHERE:  Tour stops, times and prices are listed at www.ragtimeontour.com.

For more information, visit the website.