From the opening scenes of Ragtime until the perfect end, I was totally mesmerized by this lauded musical based on the 1972 novel by E.L. Doctorow.
With Terrence McNally’s visionary book, and exquisite music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime does what I wish every musical would do, and that is have music that you still want to listen to after the curtain falls. The songs are beautiful or meaningful outside of the show itself, never codependent on the narrative arc as it tells a layered story about the American Dream featuring emblematic historical figures from Houdini to Booker T. Washington and beyond.
But let’s start with the costume design by Santo Losquato, which is perfect. From the formality of an upper-crust family living in New Rochelle, New York, to the immigrant Jews from Latvia, to the African Americans driving the musical trajectory of the beginning decades of the 20th century, these costumes ring true. It’s all spot-on even as the drama progresses, which is an impressive way to mark the passage of time.
Directed and choreographed by the superlative Marcia Milgrom Dodge, this production purrs like a well-oiled machine. The dancing is captivating, and never lapses into a dance recital inserted into the drama. Instead, the movement dovetails with Brad Haak’s excellent musical direction, which includes some of the best numbers I have seen in musical theater. Aiding with the winning combinations of costumes, characters, and their scenes are the highly efficient set designs of Kevin Depinet. Somehow, the use of moveable stairs serves as part of the settings for a wealthy home in New Rochelle, a deck for incoming immigrants, a dancehall, a club, a firehouse—well, every scene. I loved watching all the reconfigurations.
But in front of every marvelous backdrop for a musical, there must be stars on the stage, and this show delivers in a big way. What a pleasure it is to hear Ezekiel Andrew as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., a performer who truly has the range. From the ragtime reminiscent of Scott Joplin, to the gospel-like music of political discontent, to the wistful ballads of hope and loss, his powerful voice is unforgettable. As are the performances of Mother (Courtney Markowitz) and Sarah (Danyel Fulton). Markowitz makes singing some of the most challenging songs in the production look easy, but never leaves her character for the song. Fulton's portrayal of Sarah, the mother of Coalhouse’s child, is so terrific that when she is shot, I was so upset that she might not have any more musical numbers. Her duets with Coalhouse might make you cry.
Evan Kinnane is Mother’s Younger Brother, and a perfect combination of both hesitation and zeal as he becomes “woke” and tries to follow through and walk the walk instead of just talk a lot of talk. I loved the outrageous Emma Degerstedt as Evelyn Nesbit—a girl who seems ditzy on one level. But she understands the role of fame as a tool for achieving recognition in a culture that is starting to lose the battle in enforcing traditional notions of respectable behavior for women. And I admit I loved seeing familiar actors from the Houston theater circuit in such a great show, including Doug Atkins, Kevin Cooney, and Paul Hope. I mean, they even have superstars like American Idol Lakisha Jones, and she is in the ensemble.
Did I mention that I loved this show?
I guess what I am saying is that this is one of the best adaptations of a novel in that maybe it crystallizes the multiple narratives of immigrants and Americans in a way that the best novel can never do—it is just too discursive and expansive. And to translate the emotional trajectories of compelling historical characters into musical expression is a triumph in itself.
Yet most of all, when I watched Ragtime and its excellent performances, I saw proof positive that you can make people think about the historical and the political in a way that is not propagandistic, predictable, or irrelevant. Many musicals seem to have an expiration date, but Ragtime feels timeless.
Thru April 28. Tickets from $30. Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-8887. More info and tickets at tuts.com.