BOWIE – “Patriotism was a reliable sentiment in the early 1900’s,” writes E.L. Doctorow in his well-regarded 1975 novel “Ragtime.” “Teddy Roosevelt was President. The population customarily gathered in great numbers out of doors for parades, public concerts, fish fries, political picnics, social outings, or indoors in meeting halls, vaudeville theatres, operas, ballrooms. . . . Trains and steamers and trolleys moved them from one place to another. That was the style, that was the way people lived.”
A musical version of Doctorow’s work, “Ragtime: A Musical,” is currently being staged by 2nd Star Productions at the Bowie Playhouse through June 30. While the production and the novel on which it is based are excellent, “Ragtime” is not an exercise in nostalgia about a simpler, nobler time. Instead, it shows how many of the problems we face today as a nation also confronted past eras.
“Ragtime” is about three groups of people whose lives unexpectedly intersect: a wealthy white family in New Rochelle, New York (known generically as Mother, Father, Grandfather, Younger Brother, etc.); an African-American ragtime piano player Colehouse Williams, Jr., and his love, Sarah; and a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, Tateh, and his little girl. The play shows how each of these groups navigates its corner of the Progressive Era, a period of massive immigration, technological development, and social and political uncertainty that is perhaps not too dissimilar to our own.
In one excellently-executed scene, Father takes his son to see the all-American pastime of baseball. Father remembers this being a genteel sport in his youth, but he is surprised to find that games are now regularly attended by the working class and immigrants, all forming a new American society. The son embraces this atmosphere, whereas Father is dismayed by it. E. Lee Nicol portrays Father exceedingly well, capturing the essence of a man who is at first resistant to change, yet later accepting, and even mediating, change which he comes to accept as inevitable.
In the show, ragtime music is not simply accompaniment; rather, the music is used as a symbol that represents the changes taking place during America’s Progressive Era. These changes include, but are by no means limited to, the popularization of ragtime, which initiated the dominance of jazz forms in American popular music for the next fifty years. Many of the songs of “Ragtime” are unexpectedly in minor key – in other words, a more somber sound than common in musicals. The “Prologue” music is very recognizable but played in an unexpectedly slow cadence, as was the case in the actual ragtime era. Later, songs are political and drive the action and social change, as in “The Night Goldman Spoke at Union Square.” Some songs are upbeat, as in the “Gettin’ Ready Rag.” A song about Henry Ford and the assembly line is well-staged, with a Model T Ford being assembled on stage for its new owner, Colehouse. Another nice piece of Americana (and appropriate for summer, with its “sea and salty air”) is “Atlantic City,” coquettishly sung by Victoria Rose Brown. Especially noteworthy performances were given by Ashley Lyles as Sarah; every song that she sang, such as “Your Daddy‘s Son,” was outstanding.
Other than the Model T song, this production uses relatively few props. At the same time, the stage is filled with a large cast and early 1900’s costumes that breathe authenticity. This is especially true in the prologue: white summer dresses to the ground for ladies twirling parasols and sailor suits for boys. Music is provided by a small orchestra, smaller in size than the Broadway production, but with the advantage of rendering the piano more prominent – and piano is the essence of ragtime.
The show is in some ways difficult to categorize, and great caution should be used before calling the production “family entertainment.” On the one hand, the show might be recommended for young people because of dealing with socially relevant themes at crucial moments in America’s history, both past and present, and also the meaning of what it means to be an American. Indeed, the show features a number of important historical personages, such as black educator Booker T. Washington, social reformer Emma Goldman, industrialists Henry Ford and J. P. Morgan, magician Harry Houdini, and tabloid sensation Evelyn Nesbit, most of whom are pivotal figures in American history. On the other hand, the play’s open discussion of sexual themes and many uses of racial slurs make it difficult to recommend for the very young. Without giving away the plot, some very sympathetic characters in the story die violently, which also could be very disturbing for younger viewers.
This outstanding musical production, which deals with unexpectedly challenging subject matter, is nonetheless recommended highly. As stated in the program notes by the show’s director, Nathan W. Bowe, “The world that musical theater characters inhabit is usually one that transports us from our worries and cares for a few hours. ‘Ragtime’ is a different piece of art. The story takes on major issues we still face today, from racial equality and prejudices, to immigration, to gender inequality, to terrorism, and the list goes on…. improved dialogue on these issues strengthens us as a nation.” “Ragtime” and dramas like it provide not just powerful entertainment but foster such vitally necessary dialogue.