Theater :: "Ragtime" to Riches

The New Rep mounts a confident revival of the 1998 Tony Award-winning musical about immigration, racism, and workers' rights in early 20th-century New York.

"Ragtime." Produced by the New Repertory Theatre.

by Bill Marx

Watertown, Mass. - May 05, 2006 - In E.L. Doctorow's novel, ragtime is the syncopated rhythm of social change. The musical makes use of the jaunty music as an inspiring motif. Like the book, the musical interweaves fictional stories from three different worlds -- rich white gentility, poor Jewish immigrants, and struggling black underclass. Sprinkled into the plot are real life celebrities of the time, including Houdini and J.P. Morgan. Characters high and low, real and unreal, form an anthem to the American melting pot and social reform.

"Ragtime" may be set in New York early the last century, but it hits plenty of hot buttons today, given the controversies over race after Katrina, and the current fights on immigration policy. The show even contains a believer in the American dream who transforms into a terrorist. An African-American musician named Coalhouse Walker receives no justice when his car is vandalized by whites -- his treatment turns him into a killer.

Given this provocative material, it is a shame the show removes the novel's irony. Without it, the musical becomes earnest entertainment, darkness inevitably giving way to sentimental uplift. The ending features members of the white, black, and Jewish families living happily ever after in Hollywood, of all places.

Still, "Ragtime" is a lively grab bag of stereotypes. The score, written by Stephen Flaherty, provides some enjoyable tunes, especially the jazzier numbers. If only the lyrics, by Lynn Ahrens, were less pedestrian.

The New Repertory Theatre production, which features over thirty performers, is never less than impressive. Director Rick Lombardo, choreographer Kelli Edwards and the cast do things that were impossible in their old tiny Newton stage. Their enthusiasm at stretching their talents is infectious. The actors perform on, and move about, large platforms on wheels; more than ten performers shimmy and shake at once during the dance numbers. Large photographs are projected on the sides of the stage. On opening night the shakiest element was an eight-piece orchestra that rattled and squeaked.

The generally fine cast includes standout performances and singing led by Leigh Barrett as the white matriarch.

"Ragtime" is a wanna-be American epic that overreaches. But with this confident production, the New Rep considerably extends its reach.

The New Repertory Theatre production of "Ragtime" has been extended through May 28, 2006 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, Mass. For tickets, call 617-923-8487.