Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre

By Albert Williams

History is more or less bunk.–Henry Ford, in a 1916 Chicago Tribune interview

Look, up on the stage of the renovated, Persian-rococo Oriental Theatre. It’s a musical. It’s an opera. No, it’s a pageant–a panoramic, patriotic parade of history and speculation. As corny as an old-fashioned Fourth of July fireworks display and as timely as the latest performance-art experiment, Ragtime is a triumph of slick but not overspectacular stagecraft, perfect fare for any family that can cough up the bucks. (Regular prices are $27-$75, and “VIP Suite Service” tops out at $125.) It’s a rousing, unabashedly sentimental portrait of life at the start of “the American century,” etched in simple, confident strokes for audiences trying to make sense of the era’s uncertain end. The narrative–a crisp distillation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel–is generally faithful to its source, though it mutes the book’s underlying darkness, creating a focus-group-tested, feel-good optimism trailing just a faint odor of white-liberal condescension.

Conceived by Garth Drabinsky–the visionary but reckless Canadian entrepreneur recently ousted from his own production company, Livent, pending an investigation of financial irregularities–the show is the handi-work of a creative team he assembled with remarkable shrewdness, utilizing their artistic strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. Playwright Terrence McNally is sometimes shallow–but he’s well suited to musicals (as he demonstrated in Drabinsky’s Kiss of the Spider Woman), where song or dance numbers can bolster skimpy dramaturgy. Previous efforts by songwriters Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, such as the faux-calypso Once on This Island and the Agatha Christie spoof Lucky Stiff, have been derivative hackwork–but their knack for borrowing from better composers is ideally suited to Ragtime, whose period-pastiche songs aptly evoke the quaint turn-of-the-century setting.

Chicago director Frank Galati has demonstrated superb skill in his literary adaptations for Steppenwolf and the Goodman, creating painterly stage pictures, but also a tendency to drain the dramatic life from such texts as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Here, though, the swift-moving plot and frequent musical numbers create a liveliness sorely lacking in some of his other work. Other invaluable members of the team are choreographer Graciela Daniele and top-flight designers Eugene Lee (set), Santo Loquasto (costumes), and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (lights). Together this group of writers, director, composers, and designers has produced a bouncy if forgettable score that revels in ragtime’s delicate, insistent syncopations and saucy yet genteel melodies; a brisk if rather two-dimensional script populated by archetypal (and sometimes caricatured) representatives of the American ethos; and an imaginative staging featuring superb singer-actors in artfully arranged storybook tableaux.

Doctorow’s novel, which deftly brought fictional characters and real-life figures together, was written for an America set reeling by political chaos, rocked by establishment scandals like Watergate and the rhetoric, and sometimes the weaponry, of young radicals. (One of Doctorow’s central characters, an idealistic young white man who joins up with a gang of black terrorists, recalls Patty Hearst, who at the time Ragtime was published was still at large as a member of the extremist Symbionese Liberation Army.) But the musical, sometimes suggesting a cross between Les Miserables and Scott Joplin’s rag opera Treemonisha, selectively downplays the story’s political violence. We never actually see Coalhouse Walker, the African-American ragtime pianist driven mad by racial injustice, committing murder and arson, though the white brutality that pushes him over the edge is vividly dramatized. The musical also seems to endorse Coalhouse’s radicalism by contrasting him with the great educator and breaker of racial barriers Booker T. Washington, who comes off here as a pompous, deluded platitudinizer.

Besides Washington, the show includes historical personages Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit (though unfortunately it omits the novel’s encounter between the anarchist and the showgirl); escape artist Harry Houdini; and motorcar magnate Henry Ford, whose assembly lines epitomize the dehumanization of industrial-age capitalism (at one point Ford stands on a catwalk that descends on his factory workers, symbolically crushing them). Ford’s role in the story is ironic given that this show’s Chicago and Broadway editions are playing in old theaters rehabbed with the automotive company’s financial support and now bearing the Ford name: Ragtime is romanticized radicalism for the age of corporate sponsorship.

But Ragtime the show, more than the novel, mostly focuses on three fictional families. Set primarily in turn-of-the-century New York, the story ranges from the Hester Street immigrant ghetto on the Lower East Side to all-black Harlem to suburban New Rochelle, where “everyone’s a Christian.” There an unnamed, affluent WASP family finds its complacent insularity disrupted when Mother, a lovely young woman only dimly aware that female privilege carries with it an essential powerlessness, discovers a black baby abandoned in her garden. Soon she locates the child’s parents: Sarah, a neighbor’s servant, and her lover, Coalhouse Walker. Coalhouse begins visiting the New Rochelle home, entertaining the family with his ragtime piano playing–until he and Sarah run afoul of some local bigots, an incident that transforms Coalhouse into a militant anarchist whose gang comes to include Mother’s idealistic Younger Brother. The third plot strand concerns the Jewish immigrant Tateh, who starts out as a street artist and ends up in Hollywood making Our Gang-like comedies; tying the stories together is Tateh’s growing relationship with Mother, whose marriage is strained by Father’s frequent absences–an amateur explorer, he takes part in Admiral Peary’s arctic expedition–and his conservative reaction against Coalhouse.

Galati evokes the narrative’s epic sweep through ingenious visual means. Eschewing high-tech gimmickry along the lines of Phantom of the Opera’s falling chandelier and Miss Saigon’s flying helicopter, Galati and set designer Lee suggest grand physical scale while keeping the actors in close contact with the audience by using miniature set pieces and projected images. Ellis Island is suggested by a Statue of Liberty looming upstage as the chorus presses up against a rack of prisonlike bars downstage; a trip to Atlantic City is played against projections of vintage postcards; an appearance by Houdini is advertised on a banner fluttering from a pint-size biplane apparently soaring high above the stage; a midnight voyage on the Atlantic is represented by a tiny ocean liner that suddenly launches a dazzling red signal flare; splashy red-white-and-blue bunting suggests a political rally; a starry sky suddenly spells out Evelyn Nesbit’s name.

With these and other lovely and clever touches Galati celebrates the make-believe magic of theater far more exuberantly than the large, lavish sets of a Cameron Mackintosh musical spectacle ever could. And if Ragtime’s rich visual effects outshine the script and score, at least those are serviceable vehicles for Doctorow’s story and the first-rate leads and strong-voiced chorus. Among the standouts, Broadway veteran Hinton Battle as Coalhouse brings depth as well as showbiz panache to his singing and dancing; as his lover Sarah, powerhouse LaChanze exhibits far more musical subtlety than she did in Galati’s Cry, the Beloved Country at Goodman five years ago. Donna Bullock conveys Mother’s dignity and emotional evolution, John Frenzer makes the Younger Brother a passionately committed figure, and Joseph Dellger as Father registers the confusion of a man whose notions of propriety are challenged both within and outside his family. Peter Kevoian is vigorous and credible as Tateh; Michelle Dawson is a glamorous Evelyn, though the character’s reduction to dazzling dimwit is perhaps the script’s chief shortcoming; David Bonnano is a charismatic Houdini (his escape and reappearance are highlights of the second act); Rick Hilsabeck makes a graceful Henry Ford, epitomizing capitalist confidence; and Mary Gutzi lives up to her name as a righteous, powerful Emma Goldman.

Young Andrew Kennan-Bolger is quite effective as the Little Boy, who narrates–Mother and Father’s preteen son, he’s given to psychic visions of the coming world war. Those unexplained insights are fulfilled when Father is killed aboard the Lusitania, conveniently leaving Mother free to marry Tateh so they can march forward into the future together, carrying Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby as their own. In touches like this one, Ragtime’s blend of fact and fiction seems more contrived than inspired; determined to drive home its historical lesson, the show sometimes comes off as–well, more or less bunk. But what beautiful bunk! o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by Joan Marcus.