Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Ragtime, Zach Theatre, October 17 - November 18
by Michael Meigs
The Zach's Ragtime is a huge -- I mean HUGE -- and lavish production, inaugurating its state-of-the-art 425-seat Topfer theatre. The flair, finish and finesse of this production are simply breath-taking.
Ragtime is a fable of a faraway America, one that existed at the very opening of the twentieth century. In his 1975 novel E.L. Doctorow imagined a tangled story involving a prosperous bourgeois family in New Rochelle, an unmarried African-American couple and their child, and an impoverished Jewish immigrant peddler and his young daughter in the New York slums.
The story is told in an amusing faux-historical narrative with cameos by real figures notable and notorious, ranging from escape artist Harry Houdini to Henry Ford to polar explorer Robert Peary to Evelyn Nesbit, infamous in the love triangle that led to the murder of architect Stanford White.
Miloš Forman turned Ragtime into a 1981 film featuring Randy Newman's clever and gently nostalgic score. Although the story is set principally in a small town upstate and in New York City, somewhat ironically the 1996 musical was underwritten by Canadian empresario Garth Drabinsky and first produced in Toronto. The music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens sweep the audience away.
Ragtime is a dream epic, a late twentieth-century imagining of how it should have been possible to overcome the differences between races and ethnic groups. It's imbued with an optimism of America's possibilities, even as it depicts setbacks.
While the wealthy owner of a fireworks factory is away on a polar expedition, his wife discovers an abandoned black newborn child in the garden. She takes it in along with Sarah, its despondent mother; professional musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., drives up from Harlem every week, trying to speak to Sarah, and the family accepts him. The courteous and well-dressed outsider even becomes a music tutor to Edgar, the son. In an unfortunate encounter, white thugs beat Coalhouse and trash his automobile. Police and courts deny him justice; police brutality causes a death; Coalhouse and his armed followers occupy the J.P. Morgan library in New York City. Conflicts are sharp; dilemmas are insoluble. The New Rochelle family becomes involved and members learn different, difficult lessons.
Read more at AustinLiveTheatre.com . . . .