It goes without saying that civil liberties and freedoms should never be taken for granted. Acceptance from people, especially when you’re an outsider, doesn’t come easily. Surely, it can be hard-fought and ultimately earned after years of trying to prove that you’re no less of a man or woman from the one(s) who supposedly have the jurisdiction to decide your worth as a human being. But at what end, and at what cost?
For the black, Jews, and outsiders (immigrants) who were foreign to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, it was the incumbent residents holding court who decided whom to support and whom to shun. “Ragtime: The Musical,” which is based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, and has been adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally, with the music and lyrics written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, respectively, spoke poignantly to audiences during its limited run at the Fred Kavli Theatre between March 24th and 27th.
It is a musical true to life as true as art can be, based on historical figures who dominated discussion more than a century ago. The narrative, which includes individuals who once lived and breathed like Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, and Evelyn Nesbit, centers around Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (played by Chris Sams), who likely existed in one incarnation or another.
Coalhouse is a blue-collar pianist who, with hopes of advancing beyond the restrictions of his skin color, has the responsibility of parenthood foisted upon him when the baby of his girlfriend Sarah (portrayed with beautiful innocence by Leslie Jackson) is found by the bourgeois Mother (Kate Turner). This is to the chagrin of Father (Troy Bruchwalski) who stands in stubborn polar opposite of the personally pliable Mother. And while Father finally comes around in the end, there is unfortunately no recourse for Coalhouse, whose fate is indicative of the intolerant epoch that he lives in.
Weaving the other end of this musical tapestry is the story of Jewish immigrant and single father, Tateh (Matthew Curiano), who, with his Little Girl (Cara Myers), must find a way to survive after arriving on Ellis Island. Hope does manifest, though, first with flip books and then with movies once Tateh ascends the livelihood ladder to become a Hollywood director.
Once the denouement of this politically and socially responsible epic comes around, the seemingly once separate stories merge when Tateh and the reformed Mother meet each other; however, the same cannot be said for Coalhouse who can’t quite overcome the rampant prejudice from both peers and authority figures.
As for the performers themselves, Sams is absolutely fantastic as Coalhouse. He is solemn as he is powerful with both words and the unspoken confidence of his demeanor on stage. The reverberations of his essence can be felt by the very sweat of his brow. We the audience feel his urgency and human need for justice.
Kate Turner (Mother) delivers a wonderful subtlety to her performance, never too showy, but just enough so that audience members root for her. Troy Bruchwalski (Father) pours an appropriate – and unlikeable – stiltedness into his character.
Matthew Curiano (Tateh) exemplifies the likable immigrant who wants to be respected and wishes to succeed in a world swimming with sharks hunting for his demise. Cara Myers (Little Girl), too, complements her onstage father with a similar earnestness for a better life.
Overall, this rendition of “Ragtime: The Musical” surpasses expectations with both its entertainment appeal and the precious public service announcement that it imparts.
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