It’s astonishing to think that RAGTIME, the musical with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, has become an American classic in the mere fourteen years since its opening on Broadway in 1998. In that short amount of time, it’s been welcomed into the elite circle of groundbreaking American musicals like SHOW BOAT and OKLAHOMA and became the first show to open in the 1990s to be revived on Broadway.
The current production of RAGTIME, produced by Zach Theatre in its new Topfer Theatre, shows precisely why RAGTIME is such a respected and important piece of theater. This dazzling and flawless production of the show is nothing short of spectacular and yet another triumph for Zach.
RAGTIME, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, follows the intertwining struggles of blacks, whites, and immigrants in turn of the century America. Each group is represented by a few of the show’s main characters. The plight of African-Americans is personified in Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his fiancée, Sarah. The white upper-class is embodied in Mother and Father of New Rochelle, New York. Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and his daughter stand as symbols for the Eastern European working class and their struggles in their new land of opportunity. As the characters clash and collide with each other, we see that the American land of hope and ideals is also a land of racism, violence, inequality, and class warfare. Interspersed through the piece are historical figures of the time, including Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Henry Ford. All together, the piece is a sprawling, epic representation of American history in the early 1900s.
While the musical itself is ambitious in scope, it succeeds in part due to the extreme talents of its creators. Four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally’s book is, like most of his other work, a well-crafted work of art. Every word is golden, and every character is completely developed and human. The score, by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, is one of the best ever heard on the American stage. With its eclectic collection of vaudeville numbers, traditional folk sounds, and (of course) ragtime jazz, the score is an impressive celebration of our heritage, complex and yet incredibly easy to listen to and entirely memorable.
No production of this American epic would succeed without a strong design team. Indeed, in order for the struggles of these characters to ring true, they must exist in a believable, period-appropriate environment. Therefore, the Zach Theatre’s design team has transformed the elegant and modern Topfer Theatre into a century old time capsule. Michael Raiford’s set is influenced by turn of the century New England Victorian architecture with some industrial overtones. Susan Branch Towne’s costumes run the gamut from lush, luxurious and clean 1900s fashions for the upper-crust to rags worn by poor immigrants. Jason Amato’s lighting, occasionally aided by videos designed by Colin Lowry, is consistently beautiful.
Choreographer Nick Demos does a fantastic job as well, despite the fact that the material gives the characters plenty of chances to break out in song but few changes to break out in dance. Still, Demos’s choreography is thrilling, whimsical, inventive and lively, especially in the vaudeville number “Crime of the Century” and the upbeat “Gettin’ Ready Rag.”
Dave Steakley’s direction is also worthy of considerable praise. RAGTIME is an ambitious, challenging, and difficult show. It can easily feel unfocused and muddled in the hands of some less talented directors. Under Dave Steakley though, this show sparkles. The full cast moments are majestic and unforgettable, but Steakley clearly understands that the smaller one and two person scenes are the true heart of the show. Steakley is keenly focused on developing relationships between his main characters and emotionally connecting his audience to the story. Under his direction, RAGTIME is equal parts traditional, grandiose musical theater and small, intimate drawing room drama.