Kennedy Center: Ragtime

I’ve never been able to love Ragtime as much as I want to. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is a wonderful musical. I just think it could be better. It has great promise, but it doesn’t seem to fully deliver. In that sense, it is a quintessential musical of America, an America which Ragtime tries so hard to capture. It is epic in its scope, covering events occurring between 1902 and 1915, and dealing with characters in all areas of society: the upper-class protestants, the African Americans in Harlem, and the immigrants searching for a better life. The score is gorgeous and soaring with several excellent numbers (‘Your Daddy’s Son,’ ‘Back to Before,’ ‘Journey On’), the book is just overlong and tries to capture too many characters, with the result that it is hard to find the emotional heart of any of them.

The Kennedy Center does well with its current production, directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. The curtain opens on a sweeping set (designed by Derek McLane), stylized scaffolding provides levels that indicate the stratification of society. The grand arches of these levels help suggest buildings, railway stations, and even the board walk.

In this society resides a well-off family, which includes a Father, a Mother, their son Edgar, and Mother’s Younger Brother. They are at peace in their lives until the real world awakens them in the form of a black baby, found left outside. The baby belongs to Sarah, who has abandoned him after being deserted by the father, Coalhouse Walker Jr. We also meet Tateh, a Jewish immigrant, who has come to America with his Little Girl, after the death of his wife. Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, and Booker T. Washington also make appearances.

For the most part, the performances are quite good. The stand out is Quentin Earl Darrington as Coalhouse, who sings with a rich, mellifluous tone. His solid presence, however, is not matched by Jennlee Shallow as Sarah. She has an affableness and a strong voice, but lacks control.

Ron Bohmer plays father with a likeable humor and eagerness, which makes his deep-seated racism cut even more. Leigh Ann Larkin has traded one vaudeville for another, and seems to be having a blast at Evelyn Nesbit. And finally, Bobby Street is wonderful as Younger Brother, delivering his lines with all the uncertainty and sense of being lost that youth entails.

Ragtime is about the promise of America and the failure of that promise. Over its three hours, it shows the audience the indestructible spirit of this country and the shameful ways in which its inhabitants have destroyed each other. The ending has always felt a little forced to me. It seems to run too quickly to hope for the future – hope that I’m not willing to have so soon after the tragic events that have just occurred. Hope that is further deferred by the knowledge that Coalhouse and Sarah’s son, growing up at that moment in time, will be a middle aged man before the Civil Rights Movement even occurs.

But maybe I understand Ragtime a little bit better on this second viewing. When the characters sing “when he is old enough / I will show him America / And he will ride / Our son will ride / On the wheels of a dream” it is as if they are challenging us in the here and now. They never saw the dream come true, their children didn’t see the dream come true. But maybe our children will. Maybe the generations alive today will be the ones that see America finally fulfill its promise. And maybe that’s what Ragtime is truly about. If you've never seen it before, this is a production well worth attending.

3 stars
Through May 24


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