Okay, now back to last week’s visit to the dynamic Shaw Festival, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Next up on our docket was the Lynn Ahrens/ Stephen Flaherty musical, Ragtime, with book by Terence McNally. What a combination of creative talent! I had seen the original Broadway production ten years ago, with Brian Stokes, Marin Mazzie, and the incomparable but then little-known Audra McDonald (see my April 11, 2012, post on The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess). Despite their capable presence, I was at first not wild about it, and wrote of its overblown scope and lack of focus. However, it has grown on me. I’ve listened to the music many times since then, and seen a very creditable production at Heritage Theatre in Charlottesville a few years ago. So I was looking forward to taking Joan to see this new production, since she had missed the originals.
Neither of us was disappointed. In 1997, this was a clear break with the kind of silly musicals about nothing that seemed to proliferate at the time. Here was a musical with a head. Based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, the musical embraces a much wider scope than had the 1981 movie of the same book. It’s the story of three families in three different intersecting worlds in turn-of-the-century America: A rather well-to-do white family in New Rochelle, a Russian Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and most critical of all, the “negro” Coalhouse Walker and his wife and son. It was a time when anarchy threatened, when racism ran rampant, when immigrants were struggling to find their way in a new land, and when repressed women of the white middle class were beginning to come into their own, leading up to the 1920 19th amendment that would finally grant them the right to vote. Somehow, it’s all here, in a script that is almost entirely sung, and which includes plenty of invigorating ragtime music as well two of the best anthems to be sung from the stage since “Climb Every Mountain” or “When You Walk Through a Storm.” It’s not easy to sit through “The Wheels of a Dream,” or “Make Them Hear You,” without struggling to hold back tears and deal with those tightening stomach and throat muscles that threaten to choke off the next breath. These are beautiful songs indeed, and after all, this is what we go to the theatre to experience.
Once again, the quality of Shaw Festival production was evident all around. Their Festival Theatre may be somewhat smaller and less showy than Stratford’s, but the talent all around is very bit as good. And the voices every bit as impressive as in the original production. It was hard to believe that young Thom Allison as Coalhouse Walker was pushing out that magnificent sound with so little apparent effort. He had looked more out of breath earlier when he passed us running to the theatre, late for his call.
If I had to quarrel with anything about this production, it would be about the current trend in modern musical theatre to prioritize voice over context. For me, lyrics should exist in musical theatre as a higher expression of thoughts for which mere words are not sufficient. They are out of place as an opportunity to perform, or to show off a magnificent operatic voice. Yet there were times in this production when all action stopped, all context was abandoned, and the singer stood center stage to perform a song directly to the audience. The result is that it took the audience entirely out of the story and whatever tension had been built up to that point, and left us struggling to get back into the virtual world of the play once the aria has been completed. Patty Jamieson has a magnificent voice, and can really belt out some beautiful melodies, like “Our Children.” But the music took her far away from her character of Mother.
Picky, picky! All in all, this was a terrific show, full of laughs, and leaving its audience with much to think about despite the melodramatic wrap-ups.