Ragtime: America in Motion
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 4, 2000
Ragtime: America in Motion
Bass Concert Hall,
Running Time: 3 hrs
If you're in America, you're in motion. Our country thrives on movement, has built its history on it -- the freedom to go anywhere and do anything we want, westward expansion, upward mobility. That cherished national myth, the American Dream, is expressed in a sense of movement: the pursuit of happiness. Freely, we chase after it, moving from place to place, from class to class.
In the musical Ragtime, book writer Terrence McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty capture a sense of the motion driving American life and use it to propel their dramatic adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's sprawling historical novel. They give us scene after scene of characters in transit -- the prosperous white businessman Father leaving America on a ship bound for the North Pole; the immigrant artist Tateh and his young daughter riding a ship to their new home in America; Mother and her son taking the train from their suburban home into the city to tend the family business; the black ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr. making weekly pilgrimages from city to suburb to see his beloved Sarah, motoring there in a shiny new Model T -- and the characters' travels mirror the inner journeys they make, toward the future, toward fulfillment, toward security, toward a larger grasp of the world, toward justice. As we follow them on these passages, each winding its own way yet crossing the paths of others and intertwining with them, we come to see the beauty of this motion, this journeying toward a dream, and the ugliness and madness and tragedy that can result when that journey is blocked, when it's cut short by ignorance, cruelty, hatred.
The story is an epic one, spanning many miles and months and changes in fortune, with episodes of striking intensity and emotional power, yet it spins out before us in a fluid, almost graceful, manner. Director Frank Galati and choreographer Graciela Daniele, the artists responsible for the Broadway staging and this national tour, create vivid movements -- set-pieces gliding on and off, clusters of bodies circling each other, fists rising into the air -- that often lead into other vivid movements, bleeding from scene to scene, so that we're swept up in a swirl of motion and carried along like a dance partner in a waltz.
Only this is a waltz of uncommon potency, with a force that hammers at your heart. The touring company is uniformly strong and takes the stage with fervor. The songs all but burst out of them in full, passionate voices, exploding like Fourth of July fireworks above the stage and in our ears. Thus, Flaherty and Ahrens' numbers shine in all their anthemic glory. There is more here than the usual show-tune ballads and toe-tapping finales; these are the rallying cries of people on the march, in pursuit of freedom, in pursuit of justice.
Father. Tateh. Mother. Sarah. Coalhouse Walker Jr. Younger Brother. Evelyn Nesbit. Harry Houdini. Emma Goldman. All of them in America and all of them in motion. In this rich and complex musical, powerfully realized, they move, and their journeys move us. We are captured by, as Ahrens' lyric describes the music which gives the show its title, this "strange, insistent music," haunting us with its sounds of journeying.