Ragtime opens the season at Arden Theatre Company, and prior to this production, I would have described it as the most unassailable musical of the past quarter-century. This was my third version in the span of a year, after Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival and Eagle Theatre, and my 10th or so since the show debuted on Broadway in 1998. Although it is easily the most intimate rendering I’ve encountered, it is also the least successful.
The themes explored by the musical—written by Terrence McNally (libretto), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and Stephen Flaherty (music), after E.L. Doctorow’s landmark novel—make it evergreen. In many ways, they have only grown in relevance in the ensuing decades since its premiere. Writing in the 1970s, Doctorow set out to show how little the world had changed since the turn of the century; American life, it seemed, was a tragically repeating loop. That observation echoes throughout the material’s handling of racism, women’s rights, and the abuse of immigrants.
When archetypal is one-dimensional
Terrence J. Nolen’s sleekly designed staging—performed on a set (by James Kronzer) that’s at once bare and showy, and lighted with a maximal lack of subtlety by Thom Weaver—doesn't much mine the darker elements of the musical. Many of the characters are archetypal, with nondescript names like Mother of Little Girl, but rarely have they felt as one-dimensional as they do here.
That absence of specificity causes the work’s more serious topics to flounder. The tragic dimensions of the Jewish immigrant Tateh’s unhappy introduction to America—a land where the sidewalks are decidedly not paved with gold—never adequately register, nor does the magnitude of his self-made transformation into the Baron Ashkenazy. And more than in other recent assumptions I’ve seen, the parallels to anti-immigration sentiment in our country’s current moment go unexplored. A particularly chilling line in McNally’s script, about how immigrant parents fear losing their children, barely caused a ripple of recognition.
Here and there
Instead, the material seems weaker than I remember. Ahrens and Flaherty’s score is heavy on anthems, which feel more appropriate in the context of a lavish undertaking. On a smaller scale, they interrupt the sense of a naturalistic flow. “Back to Before,” a hymn to the awakening power of women, is still rousing and resonant—but I never noticed how divorced it is from the dramaturgy of the scene that precedes it. Many of the songs tend to stop the show in an overly self-conscious way.
The large ensemble sings uniformly well, although the musical balances were not ideal on opening night. The F. Otto Haas Stage has been reconfigured in the round for this production, with members of the orchestra occupying risers on every side of the auditorium. This made it difficult to ascertain where a certain instrument was coming from, much less to create a unified sound. At times, the chorus sang directly into my ear when they stood on a platform right behind my seat; when they moved to the other side of the auditorium, the aural distance might have been a mile away.
Among the principals, Nkrumah Gatling successfully conveys the pride and power of Coalhouse Walker Jr., whose mistreatment at the hands of white supremacists forms the story’s prime motivation. Robi Hager captures the whirling idealism of Younger Brother, a lost man-child who longs for something to believe in. Cooper Grodin has a few affecting moments as Tateh, most of which he achieves in spite of the production. Jessica Johnson has a show-stopping moment in the Act I finale.
Kim Carson’s hard-edged Mother lacks a necessary inner light, and Jim Hogan’s Father is a triumph of singing (but little else). Terran Scott is a lovely presence as Sarah, Coalhouse’s murdered fiancée, but she doesn’t fully connect with the material; her overeager performance of “Your Daddy’s Son” feels more like an audition piece than a thoughtful character study. Mary Tuomanen has been directed to play Emma Goldman as a proto-hipster, with a vague accent that changes from scene to scene and an anachronistic pair of Iris Apfel-like eyeglasses.
There is little danger of Ragtime losing its potency, and I imagine future productions will strike the right balance of historical awareness, contemporary acuity, and showmanship. The Arden’s take, unfortunately, is a case of subtraction by subtraction.
What, When, Where
Ragtime. By Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens, and Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Terrence J. Nolen. Through October 27, 2019, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.
The Arden Theatre Company’s complex is ADA-compliant. Patrons with specific questions can call (215) 922-1122 or email [email protected]. There will be audio-described and open-captioned performances of Ragtime on Friday, October 4 at 8pm and on Saturday, October 5 at 2pm.