Review of Ragtime at Union Avenue Opera

                The brilliant Ragtime was created by several artists at the top of their games, and indeed, in the way of the theatre, it is created anew at each performance by the Union Avenue Opera artists. It is a Broadway musical played by an opera company, erasing unhelpful distinctions. Call it a play with music – or perhaps, at times, when the whole company unites like the chorus of an oratorio, call it music with a play.

    It began with a novel by E.L Doctorow that he called Ragtime. That was the name of the music with a propulsive, jagged, fascinating style that spread from the piano players in the Black communities throughout the whole country. It became the accompaniment for the birth of what was to become, in perhaps too many ways, the American Century. 

    With that rhythm in his words, Doctorow chose three contrasting families to make and suffer from the conflicts that eventually worked out ways to together make the new century happen. The white family lives in suburban peace and comfort in New Rochelle, New York. Father runs a very successful fireworks factory; Mother keeps the orderly house and their young son Edgar, and with them live Mother’s Younger Brother, who creates the fireworks, and Grandfather. Second are the Black residents of Harlem, including a beautiful young woman named Sarah, who loves the ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. Third are immigrants from Europe pouring into the Lower East Side, with a focus on Tateh, a Jewish artist from Latvia, and his young daughter. In the way of America, these three families become entwined with each other, for good and for ill, with suffering and happiness. Doctorow, fleshing out his story, brings in some of the famous ones of the time to explain how what they are doing is also creating their new America: the financier J.P. Morgan, the inventor and industrialist Henry Ford, the educator and Black spokesperson Booker T. Washington, the anarchist and union organizer Emma Goldman, the immigrant and escape artist Harry Houdini, and a beautiful woman who anticipates in Ragtime the women in Chicago who gain notoriety and success in vaudeville when the tabloids celebrate a scandalous murder trial.

    Terrence McNally carefully and brilliantly turned Doctorow’s novel into the book for a musical. He allowed the main characters and the celebrities to continue to speak their own thoughts, often in the third person, and he constructed strong dramatic scenes as the story called for them. Lynn Ahrens continued the lyrical development of the characters and their actions with her lyrics for the music of Stephen Flaherty, which made sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious use of ragtime and its dramatic propulsion in his score. They together can achieve an almost Walt Whitman-like poetic celebration of the nation and its people, but with attention also to the darker colors in the picture.

    Union Avenue Opera has brought all of this forward in their staging of Ragtime. Stage Director Shaun Patrick Tubbs and Scenic and Lighting Designer Patrick Huber have used what seems to be an increasingly common – and smart – way of using the stage space for these sometimes documentary pieces of theatre. They keep the stage mostly open, not bothering with filling it with the walls and doors and furniture of realistic staging, with just a table/writing desk stage right, a red Model T Ford way down left, and the rest we can fill in with our imaginations. They also have a raised area, like a bridge crossing the stage upstage and ending in a generous staircase, decorated with period motifs, all used by director and actors to feature individual characters and moments and to keep the performance flowing, with room on the stage for Leah Tubbs’ occasional choreography and for the period and appropriately varied costumes by Teresa Doggett to create almost Impressionist beauty.

    The cast play and sing splendidly throughout, with Debby Lennon exactly right as Mother, Eric J. McConnell increasingly baffled as Father, Gavine Nobbe as their young son, James Stevens increasingly radicalized as Mother’s Younger Brother, and Chuck Lavazzi as Grandfather. As the immigrant artist Tateh, Marc Schapman struggles until he creates the movies; Nora Sprowls plays his loving, enduring daughter. Nyghel J. Byrd is the proud artist of the keyboard and the proud, unrelenting man Coalhouse Walker; Jazmine Alwalia is his love; Jaron Bentley is briefly their son Coalhouse Walker III; and Rose Fischer is Sarah’s friend. Among the featured celebrities, Miles Brenton plays Booker T. Washington, Joel Rogier is Harry Housini, Cole Gutman is J.P. Morgan and Anthony Heinemann is Henry Ford, Liya Khaimova the intense radical Emma Goldman, Gina Malone the “Girl in the Swing,” Evelyn Nesbit, Benjamin Worley the Arctic explorer Admiral Peary, and Philip Touchette plays the racist fire chief Will Conklin.

    Company Artistic Director Scott Schoonover conducting the orchestra provides a solid and sometimes subtle foundation for the performance. They are a splendid group of musicians.

    Rachel St. Pierre and Megan Cahill are the Properties Managers, Philip Touchette the designer of the always-helpful Supertitles, Megan-Marie K. Cahill, the Production Manager, and Nathan Wright the absolutely indispensable Stage Manager.

    Union Avenue Opera’s Ragtime provides the kind of evening you always hope for when you go to the theatre.

    —Bob Wilcox

    Photo © Dan Donovan Photography