Look Back in Awe

It was a logical choice to adapt E. L. Doctorow’s novel saluting Americana, Ragtime, for the Broadway musical stage in 1998. Doctorow’s ambitious tale, interweaving a prosperous New Rochelle WASP family, African-American servants and Eastern European immigrants during the early years of the 20th century was ripe for an introspective millennium audience. And the skilled team of Terrence McNally (who wrote the book), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and Stephen Flaherty (music) was able to capture the pulse of the book, lovingly translating its ups and downs to rich musical effect. (All three won Tony Awards for their efforts). But how can one scale down such a show, big in every way, around the budget and size of an Off-Off-Broadway theater? Such a question does not seem to have deterred Tom Wojtunik, who directs Ragtime for the Astoria Performing Arts Center. Wojtunik makes such good use of his performance space in Astoria’s Good Shepherd United Methodist Church that one could easily think it was conceived for that exact space.

To give away much of the show’s plot would be as criminal as some of the more gut-wrenching acts that drive the show’s powerful three hours, so I’ll abstain. Instead I reflect upon the way that Doctorow has his stories intersect and entwines the lives of characters both fictional and historic (including activist Emma Goldman and Harry Houdini) seemingly with a minimum of effort.

Wojtunik builds upon these exchanges in a wonderfully literal way. Choreographer Ryan Kasprzak has the characters parade through the auditorium, moving throughout the audience (who are seated in five sections around a de facto thrust stage and also must face each other). In the first act, the characters from the three different groups find themselves integrated among each other; early in the more racially-charged second act, these characters march through the same movements, but in a more segregated manner. Wojtunik’s point is simple but profound: these characters represent us. Their problems are our problems, and we cannot escape them.

One of the elements that make Ragtime a rarity is that it is never simply one character’s musical. The central love story between Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (D. William Hughes) and his erstwhile paramour, Sarah (Janine Ayn Romano) has a ripple effect that forever alters the lives of her employer, Mother (Anna Lise Jensen), her Younger Brother (Ricky Oliver), and Tateh (Mark Gerrard), an enterprising Jewish immigrant whose paths keep crossing with that of Mother’s.

All of this may sound a bit dark, and while Ragtime has its heavy moments, it is also full of uplift, thanks to a catalog of songs that rank at the very top of the modern canon. Hughes and Romano have the unenviable task of taking on theater royalty in reprising the signature roles of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, but they do so with absolute confidence. Witness Romano’s chilling take on “Your Daddy’s Son,” or their harmonic convergence on the show’s biggest number, the duet “On the Wheels of a Dream.”

Jensen also drives the show in her own right. Mother undergoes a sea change of emotional realizations throughout Ragtime, which the actress underscores with subtlety and grace. Jensen also has a gorgeous voice, put to great use in the number “Back to Before.” Rare is the actress who can take a few minutes of standing still and alone on stage and turn it into a command performance.

If Jensen provides the show’s heart, then Gerrard is every a bit its soul. Mother may just be waking up to the dangers in the world, but Tateh knows them all too well, and the actor’s full-bodied performance aches at both possibility and regret. The role of Younger Brother is the one that suffers the most in McNally’s adaptation from the novel, but Oliver makes every moment count. He is certainly an actor to keep an eye on. The show’s ensemble chorus also comes through time and again, particularly in such numbers as “He Wanted to Say” and “Till We Reach That Day.”

Ragtime is a technical marvel as for an Off-Off-Broadway show. Though Hughes had a few projection problems (particularly when singing “Make Them Hear You”) at the performance I attended, overall Kristyn R. Smith proves to be a resourceful sound designer. David Withrow’s costumes, too, are all first-rate. There is simply no weak link in this show under Wojtunik’s hand.

And all of the pieces come together to make for a harrowing, unforgettable night of theater. While this show is sturdy enough to be an evergreen, it is nearly impossible to watch Ragtime and not think about the nation’s specific historic moment. Passionate and bursting with talent, APAC’s production is a towering testament to the angels on whose shoulders we now stand.

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