nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
June 22, 2005
The first thing I should say about the Paper Mill Playhouse’s Ragtime, directed by Stafford Arima, who also directed this reconceived version of the show in London in 2003, is that the production values are flawless. Everything—the orchestra, the singers, the set, the lights—is of the highest quality.
The epic/historical story centers around three interconnected families, representing aspects of life in the early 20th century in the New York City area. Coalhouse Walker, Jr., played expertly by Quentin Earl Darrington, is a black ragtime piano player in Harlem. His love, Sarah (the powerful, beautiful, and graceful Kenita R. Miller), lives, along with their child, with a white family in New Rochelle, New York. The family in New Rochelle, “Mother” (Rachel York), “Father” (David Hess), “Younger Brother” (Shonn Wiley), and “Little Boy” (played by Kyle McLaughlin the night I saw the show) explore their roles in the family and the greater society. Tateh (Neal Benari) and his daughter (played by Alona Bach the night I saw the show) are Eastern European Jewish immigrants, new to the country; we follow their story as they try to make their way in America. Through the interconnections of these characters, Ragtime brings a personal perspective to an historical time.
At the heart of the show are 31 songs, which also explore the emotions and interconnectedness of the characters musically. At the center, of course, is ragtime, an American music popularized by Scott Joplin that, according to the program notes, fuses African and European traditions and stands as an “expression of the broken rhythms of life and history, and… the syncopated rhythm of a nation moving forward at lightning speed.” There are also Eastern European sounds and instruments.
Robert Jones’s set is simple, yet magnificent (even if that seems contradictory). There is a balcony that allows actors to use levels to create different scenes—from a stand-off outside a building to a ship going to sea—and a painted background with opening doors. When the wall is backlit, it is beautiful like stained glass. There is also a piano and since the stage is big, lights are used effectively to create different playing spaces.
The amazing ensemble cast plays different characters from groups (of immigrants, black Americans wanting justice, and even baseball fans) to real historical figures like Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, and Booker T. Washington.
All of the actors are successful, but I found the leads especially notable, particularly Miller and York, who both create very moving characters. Also notable are Justin Lee Miller as Booker T. Washington and Shonn Wiley as Younger Brother.
Ragtime is entertaining, sometimes funny, and moving. I appreciate that although it is sentimental about some things (like love and baseball) it is also sometimes refreshingly unsentimental about things like justice.