New Rep Ignites Power of “Ragtime”
May 6, 2006
by Jan Nargi



Book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, based on the novel “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow, direction and musical staging by Rick Lombardo, musical direction by Todd C. Gordon, choreography by Kelli Edwards, scenic design by Janie E. Howland, costume design by Frances Nelson McSherry and Molly Trainer, lighting design by Franklin Meissner, Jr., sound design by Rick Lombardo, projection design by Dorian Des Lauriers, properties design by Erik D. Diaz

Principal cast in alphabetical order:

Emma Goldman, June Baboian

Mother, Leigh Barrett

Evelyn Nesbit, Aimee Doherty

Henry Ford, Frank Gayton

Harry Houdini, Paul Giragos

Booker T. Washington, Kenneth Harmon

Father, Peter Edmund Haydu

Younger Brother, Austin Lesch

Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Maurice E. Parent

Little Girl, Sophie Rich

Tateh, Robert Saoud

Sarah, Stephanie Umoh

Little Boy, Samuel A. Wartenberg

Performances: Now through May 28

Box Office: 617-923-8487 or

There is justice, Sarah. “Ragtime” is finally getting its due

Last summer this masterful work by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Terrence McNally received outstanding treatment at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey in a highly acclaimed production directed by Stafford Arima that starred Quentin Earl Darrington, Kenita Miller, Neal Benari and Rachel York. Now the New Rep in Watertown, Mass., is lavishing equally masterful care on this bountiful piece of musical theater Americana under the watchful eye of Producing Artistic Director Rick Lombardo.

For the New Rep’s grandest undertaking in its 21-year history, Lombardo has pulled out all the stops, casting some of the best talent in Boston and taking full advantage of the company’s beautiful new facility in the Arsenal Center for the Arts. This sumptuous, 32-member production, in contrast to Arima’s minimalist approach, demonstrates that “Ragtime” can resonate in either form as long as the people and relationships at its core don’t get swallowed up in production values or the book’s big themes.

Ahrens, Flaherty and McNally have done admirable work in translating E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling novel about the collision of race, culture and the American Dream at the turn of the century into a vibrant and provocative piece of heartfelt musical theater. The New Rep does no less in balancing the symbolism of larger-than-life historical figures with the everyday struggles of three disparate American family groups.

“Ragtime” chronicles the whirlwind of change that occurs when the lives of a wealthy Victorian family of WASPs from New Rochelle, a Black piano player and his family from Harlem, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter from Latvia intersect in irrevocable ways. Iconic figures like anarchist Emma Goldman, industrialist Henry Ford, humanitarian Booker T. Washington, and entertainment idols Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini represent the social and economic forces that shape that change. They also serve as either catalysts or role models as they alternately hover like specters or interact directly with the central characters and each other.

<>Ahrens and Flaherty’s magnificent, almost entirely sung-through score amplifies both the humanity and the hatred that emerge from the inevitable clash of cultures. The optimistic symphonic style of American composer Aaron Copeland is evident in the stirring anthems “Journey On,” “Wheels of a Dream,” “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square,” and “Henry Ford.” The tragic irony of “Success” and the joyous celebration of “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” capture the hopes, dreams and despair of immigrants through two different takes on traditional Klezmer music. Novelty numbers “What a Game” and “Crime of the Century” illustrate with pointed humor the changing landscape of America’s pastime as well as the power and foibles of the country’s judicial system and its press.

Gospel influences turn “Till We Reach That Day” and “Make Them Hear You” into soaring sermons of faith in the face of darkness. “What Kind of Woman,” “Your Daddy’s Son,” “Our Children” and “Back to Before” are strikingly introspective ballads that signal the steps forward that individual women, and American women as a class, are taking to assert their independence and free will. And of course, there’s the Scott Joplin-esque Ragtime as expressed in the joyous “Getting Ready Rag,” the haunting “New Music,” and the quintessential title song and prologue that is without a doubt one of the most exhilarating opening numbers in American musical theater.

The uniformly talented New Rep cast performs McNally’s book and Ahrens and Flaherty’s score with exceptional truth and beauty. Maurice E. Parent as Ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. combines a playful and sensual flirtatiousness with a quiet intensity that makes him a totally sympathetic suitor turned outraged terrorist turned tragic hero. What his gentle baritone lacks in power and richness his acting delivers with charisma and sincerity. Stephanie Umoh as his love Sarah has a face as endearing as her voice is beautiful. When she sings “I buried my heart in the ground” to her infant during her remorseful “Your Daddy’s Son,” she sends chills throughout the audience.

<>Boston favorite Leigh Barrett as Mother has never been better. The pivotal role of a protected woman catapulted into bravery while her husband is away exploring the Arctic with Admiral Peary showcases her warmth and spirit perfectly, and her lovely mezzo soprano has a penetrating richness that makes her “Back to Before” both rueful and empowering. As Tateh, Robert Saoud is simply wonderful. He is gentle and compassionate as he comforts his frightened daughter in the lovely “Gliding,” and he is both proudly determined and fiercely protective in his shattering attack on American hypocrisies, “A Shtetle Iz Amereke/Success.” He and Barrett together provide one of the most tender moments in the show as they reveal a growing attraction for one another in the sweetly innocent “Our Children.”

The list of stellar performances in New Rep’s “Ragtime” is endless. Peter Edmund Haydu as father is pompous yet perplexed by the unfathomable changes swirling around him. Austin Lesch as Younger Brother is soul-searching but borderline obsessed in trying to find his one true cause. June Baboian is wry yet evangelistic as the outspoken anarchist Emma Goldman who fights for the worker against the oppressor. Kenneth Harmon is a passionate but controlled Booker T. Washington, White America’s accepted Black leader who tries to fight for equality among the races within the woefully inadequate established system of justice. Aimee Doherty snatches the spotlight every time she says “whee” as the fallen idol du jour Evelyn Nesbit, and Paul Giragos as Harry Houdini is a haunting success story who has traded his immigrant shackles for the bondage of celebrity. Even the children in “Ragtime” have their moments. Sophie Rich as Tateh’s Little Girl is heartbreaking as the moving orphan train she has been put upon threatens to pull her beyond her father’s reach, and Samuel A. Wartenberg as Little Boy punctuates his many scenes with unembarrassed, irrepressible humor.

The staging, choreography, sets, costumes, lighting, sound, and orchestrations are nothing short of sensational. They all work in harmony to bring the three colliding family stories together in one tapestry. Even in Rick Lombardo and Kelli Edwards’ hilarious courtroom scene – where they can’t resist applying the New Rep’s signature wit to “Crime of the Century” by combining Bob Fosse’s chair dance from “Cabaret” with the circus atmosphere he created for “Chicago” – the threads that tie the lives in “Ragtime” together never fray.

Stunning visuals include modular rollaway risers that mimic bandstands, sailing ships, tenement fire escapes, pulpits, an attic, a front porch, and the aforementioned moving train. Portable sections of metal fencing become the imposing locked gates of Ellis Island. Slide projections on either side of the stage mark the slowly crumbling stability of the New Rochelle family by dissolving the once magnificent Victorian homestead into an out-of-focus pool of black and white brush strokes. The Stars and Stripes and Statue of Liberty also appear judiciously to punctuate the glory and despair that is America.

This New Rep production of “Ragtime” is a must see on many levels. Don’t miss out on your opportunity to experience an exquisite production of a brilliant musical that is destined to become an American classic.