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Oppression Gets Syncopation

THEATER

By Sarah A. Rodriguez, CRIMSON STAFF WRITER

RAGTIME

Directed by Frank Galati

At the Colonial Theater

Through Mar. 28

As far as popular and Tony-award-winning musicals go, Ragtime is about as innovative as Broadway can get. Paul Simon's The Capeman was eclectic, but failed miserably in ticket sales. Rent, on the other hand, is praised for being original, but still flaunts enough crowd-pleasing values (love despite adversity, carpe diem) to insure huge financial success. To succeed on the Great White Way, a show does not always have to sacrifice controversy, but it usually does have to put it in a prettily-packaged manner that will draw enough theatergoers to pay the bills--and make a gargantuan profit besides.

Ragtime conforms nicely to these standards, while still making a strong statement about the so-called "American Dream," circa 1900. The then-taboo issues of racism, xenophobia, unwed mothers and exploitation of the lower classes, to name just a few of the topics sung about onstage, are brought up with a bit of cliche, but are tackled with honest zeal nonetheless. The plot revolves around three families--one upper-class WASP, one black and one immigrant Jewish--who are striving for success and happiness in turn-of-the-century America, which is offering them as much adversity as it is opportunity.

The production opens by introducing the smiling Mother (Raebecca Eichenberger) and Father (Cris Groenendaal) who, along with Little Boy (Nathan Keen), Mother's Younger Brother (Aloysius Gigl) and Grandfather (Austin Colyer) round out the white upper-class upstate New Yorkers. The audience is also introduced to Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Lawrence Hamilton), a talented Harlem pianist, and his captivating lover Sarah (Darlesia Cearcy); as well as to the fanatically patriotic immigrant Tateh (Michael Rupert) and his Little Girl (Jenell Slack). The three groups of people--the WASPs in frilly white, of course; the Harlem natives in deep burgundies and blues; and the Jewish immigrants in black--face off against each other in a simple yet intensely symbolic dance routine as they sing about a mysterious and mesmerizing new form of music that is "Giving the nation a new syncopation," called--what else?--ragtime.

As the musical dances on, the story becomes so engrossing that the characters more silly and overused lines blur into a powerful larger picture. While Father is out on an arctic expedition, Mother discovers a live baby buried in her backyard--the child of Sarah and Coalhouse Walker Jr. Much to everyone's shock, she takes both baby and mother into her house, and its not long before Coalhouse himself comes a'courtin', enchanting the once-uppity white folks with his amazing piano-playing abilities. Unfortunately, a violent act of racism soon sours Coalhouse and Sarah's blossoming romance, and tragedy moves into center stage by the conclusion of Act I. In the midst of all of this, Tateh and his daughter struggle more and more to find money for food, much less the fabled wealth that they heard about America back home. After suffering in the streets and in a variety of sweatshops, their own hope dissipates almost entirely--until a delightful turn of events tosses them back into the lives of the other people onstage.

One of the most fascinating quirks of Ragtime is the number of historical figures included in the cast. Booker T. Washington (Allan Louis) serves as a role model of monumental importance for Coalhouse and his friends; likewise, Harry Houdini (Bernie Yvon) is always introduced as an example of the success even an immigrant can find. Social activist Emma Goldman (Theresa Tova) plays a key role in Tateh's life as she organizes the labor rallies of Lawrence, Massachusetts. On the other end of the spectrum, a haunting dance depicts J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford crushing the starving masses underneath their ridiculous wealth. Even pinup girl Evelyn Nesbit, whose (literally) insanely jealous husband murdered her lover in what was then dubbed "The Crime of the Century," is featured regularly, breathlessly uttering, "Wheee!" as she sits atop a velvet swing.

The featuring of these particular historical figures as stars in a musical may strike some audience members as odd-- and it would odd in a modern-day setting, withour instant-information pop-culture world whereHollywood stars are more adored than any pettyhuman interest hero. But at the turn of the lastcentury, people became celebrities for a varietyof reasons, not just because they starred inmulti-million dollar movies--the breadth and, yes,oddness of their respective accomplishments madethem famous and adored by (or at least mildlyinteresting to) the masses. Ragtime may bebased on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 work of fiction, butthe real people interspersed throughout the talemake the show even more poignant.

In a production of this massive a caliber, itis expected that all the leads will be powerfulsingers as well as actors, and Ragtime isno exception to this rule. Everyone with a solosings with enough heartfelt emotion to bring theentire audience to tears. The voices ofEichenberger and Cearcy, as Mother and Sarahrespectively, create the audio equivalent ofheartbreak itself--Eichenberger with painfullymeasured dignity, Cearcy with a flood of rawemotion. As Coalhouse Walker Jr., Hamiltondisplays an enormous range of talent both duringand between his solo numbers. He slips into eachmood--from languid happiness to pure joy to miseryto violent anger--with a realistic lucidity thatcements his position as one of the mostoutstanding members of the cast. In addition, thecharacters of Tateh, Mother's Younger Brother andEmma Goldman are brought to life by some of themost gifted and versatile actors ever seen on amusical theater stage.

Ragtime tells an important story--albeitin a vaguely cliched manner--that gains even moresignificance as we approach the turn of our owncentury. One hundred years from now, what willthese days be most remembered for--the marvelousaccomplishments that America has made, or theracial and economic problems that still plague oursociety?

Ragtime seems to hint that as long as wecan all keep our arms open to change and progress,things will be all right. But when one stops toconsider that these words of wisdom are comingfrom (of all places) an enormously successfulBroadway musical, the strength and wisdom of themessage suddenly rings a bit hollow.

In a production of this massive a caliber, itis expected that all the leads will be powerfulsingers as well as actors, and Ragtime isno exception to this rule. Everyone with a solosings with enough heartfelt emotion to bring theentire audience to tears. The voices ofEichenberger and Cearcy, as Mother and Sarahrespectively, create the audio equivalent ofheartbreak itself--Eichenberger with painfullymeasured dignity, Cearcy with a flood of rawemotion. As Coalhouse Walker Jr., Hamiltondisplays an enormous range of talent both duringand between his solo numbers. He slips into eachmood--from languid happiness to pure joy to miseryto violent anger--with a realistic lucidity thatcements his position as one of the mostoutstanding members of the cast. In addition, thecharacters of Tateh, Mother's Younger Brother andEmma Goldman are brought to life by some of themost gifted and versatile actors ever seen on amusical theater stage.

Ragtime tells an important story--albeitin a vaguely cliched manner--that gains even moresignificance as we approach the turn of our owncentury. One hundred years from now, what willthese days be most remembered for--the marvelousaccomplishments that America has made, or theracial and economic problems that still plague oursociety?

Ragtime seems to hint that as long as wecan all keep our arms open to change and progress,things will be all right. But when one stops toconsider that these words of wisdom are comingfrom (of all places) an enormously successfulBroadway musical, the strength and wisdom of themessage suddenly rings a bit hollow.

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