The defining characteristic of ragtime music is its “syncopation” — a style in which the melody falls in between the beats instead of on them. Syncopated rhythms, which originated with African-American musicians, give the sense that the melody is slightly ahead of or even moving against its own beat, and they were new and jarring in early nineteenth-century America. These rhythms are an apt vehicle for the cultural and personal intersections of Ragtime, the musical epic of three very different American families, based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. Onstage now at the Ogunquit Playhouse, in a dazzling production directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn, Ragtime is a paean to ragtime music and the idealism, unease, and fervors of its time.
Lady Liberty’s face hangs over the stage — literally — during pre-curtain, her eyes stoic. In her fraught city, diverse and new populations come into ever closer proximity, and Ragtime follows how its three families become improbably intertwined: Wealthy white Mother (Kirsten Scott), wife of a fireworks magnate (Jamie LaVerdiere), finds new independence when her husband leaves on an exploring expedition. She and her son (Sol Thomas/Tyler Wlads) share a moment in a train station with Latvian immigrant Tateh (Josh Young) and his daughter (Ella Luke-Tedeschi/Ella Riley). And black ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darnell Abraham) is searching for his love Sarah (Lindsay Roberts), who, unbeknownst to him, has birthed their child and found unlikely refuge in Mother’s house. Their intersections upend the rhythms of all involved.
The city’s shifting movements play out on a deep, nearly square stage, bounded on three sides by tall, moveable gates. Here, blocking and choreography (by Jesse Robb) make physical the era’s cultural curiosity and conflicts, as blacks, upper-class whites, and immigrants circle and eye each other, mingle pell-mell, and warily re-segregate. Energetic street scenes abound, as when Mother’s Younger Brother (Julian Decker) gets radicalized by Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst) in Union Square; and the staging draws on stark juxtapositions, as when Irish-American firemen destroy Coalhouse’s beloved Model-T while, upstage, Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton) speaks against retaliatory violence toward whites. Arch and rambunctious fun is had with other historical figures, such as Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel) hanging from his feet, and notorious vaudevillian Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Amburn) singing in a swing.
Ogunquit’s stellar ensemble executes Stephen Flaherty’s syncopation-rich score impeccably, often with intricate multi-part counterpoint and hairpin swerves in mood. Precision, verve, and character are rife. Young sings Tateh’s numbers with beautiful phrasing, breathing into and against the score; and Scott lends a restrained humor to Mother’s clarion, watchful empathy. As her brother, Decker lets us see the passion and need for connection that drive his political awakening. And in the role of Coalhouse, Abraham has charisma and a marvelously nuanced dynamic range; he surges between murmurs and roars as he sings the secular gospel of a love song, a soaring aria of American idealism, or the dark verdicts of his rage.
As the story progresses, we hear dissonance in the off-beat melodies of this new music, and sometimes a violence in its push against the beat. And “Why can’t I sing it, too?” asks Mother’s Younger Brother, raising specters of both appreciation and appropriation of music that represents variously a curiosity, a passion, a threat, a promise, and a way into other worlds.
Ogunquit’s superb production brings wit, ardor, and affection to the fundamental premise of Ragtime: that it is by proximity and simple, everyday interaction — by learning each other’s names, children, fears, and music; by leaving our own neighborhood and listening — that we grow our empathy for those who seem other. It’s an idea that could certainly stand a revival.
Ragtime | Book by Terrence McNally; Music by Stephen Flaherty; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow. Directed by Seth Sklar-Heyn; Musical Direction by Jeffrey Campos | Through August 26 | Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main St, Ogunquit | .
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