“Ragtime” – Exactly the Show We Need Right Now

“Ragtime,” reimagined on the Asolo Repertory stage, is a triumph of musical theater and truly defines the American Character, which was the theater’s theme for five years ending last season.

This season, I have been missing that common thread of the American Character theme, which the company handled so masterfully for half a decade. Yet this latest production is the culmination of everything that is both beautiful and profoundly discouraging about the American experiment – the perfect show to complement “1776,” the first in the series, which had until this weekend remained steadfast as my favorite Asolo show.

Shooting to the top is the theater’s superlative production of “Ragtime.” It is a combination of all the hope inherent in a new world’s dawning along with a searing portrait of the unseemliness of everything brewing beneath the surface of our nation’s glossy origin story. The founding fathers, for all their brilliance and high-mindedness, pieced together an improbable and volatile alliance to form the United States of America; and “Ragtime” brings that dichotomy into sharp focus with a stunning book and score.

The cast of “Ragtime” (Photo by Cliff Roles)

Through interweaving stories, “Ragtime,” set at the turn-of-the-century, explores subjects that compose the very essence of the complexity of American life, including women’s evolving roles; worker’s rights; racial unrest; and immigration.

I was lucky enough to see the original Tony-award winning Broadway production, which was helmed by the great Frank Galati, who happens to be Asolo Rep’s Associate Artist. Little did I know at the time that I would one day see the work of Galati on a regular basis (although he did not direct this production) and observe him frequently sliding into a seat in the rear orchestra. That sweeping 1998 production featured an all star cast, including Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, and blew me away with the rock star status of the performers, the elaborate sets, and powerful music.

So, I was thrilled to learn the Asolo was staging this important show, which to my surprise didn’t garner anywhere near the hoopla of the season opener “Evita.” Perhaps it is because the production of “Ragtime” was billed as a stripped down version of the original under the direction of Peter Rothstein, who is new to the Asolo stage.

With only simple brick walls marked with two doors located at the second story; a careful use of shadows to mimic the silhouette art of Tateh, the Jewish immigrant, whose story forms one part of the triumvirate at the center of the show; a swing; a piano; and two rolling stair units, the “Ragtime” team transports us to another time and place. The minimal set gives us the opportunity to focus on the characters, something Asolo Rep does so well.

“Ragtime” introduces us to a wealthy white family, Father (Bret Shuford), Mother (Britta Ollmann), Younger Brother (David Darrow), Grandfather (Hugh Hastings), and the Little Boy (William Garrabrant). Although they are not given names, this family is not merely a convenient stand-in for all wealthy white families of the time. Father is an adventurer who sets off for a year in hopes of discovering the North Pole leaving Mother to care for the family. Mother allows her newfound independence to carry her life in an entirely new and unexpected direction when she discovers an abandoned African American baby in her garden and agrees to care for the baby and his mother Mary (Danyel Fulton). Mother’s bold and very modern decision sets of a chain of events, which she sings about at the conclusion of the show to great effect. Ollmann brings down the house singing “We Can Never Go Back to Before,” a tremendous anthem which perfectly sums up what happens when anyone first tastes freedom. The song typifies the American experience and underscores the themes of the show.

Britta Ollmann as Mother (Photo by Cliff Roles)

Mother, Younger Brother, and the Little Boy begin making new friends when they are set free from the patriarchal binds of Father. The family embraces Colehouse Walker Jr. (Jared Joseph), a successful pianist, who brings music to the staid New England home and comes to court Mary. Near the conclusion of the first act, Fulton and Joseph perform the hopeful song “Wheels of a Dream.” Both are incredibly accomplished vocalists whose voices blend beautifully together.

We also meet Emma Goldman (Leslie Becker), who represents the social conscience of the production, and Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and his daughter, immigrants who come to this country with only a dream for a better life. Becker and Andreev are powerful presences on stage and refuse to let you forget how crucial immigrants are to the fabric of American society. Goldman contributes a voice for social justice and Tateh represents the creativity that arises from a new perspective – the hallmark of American culture.

In a feat of storytelling and theatricality, the cast and creative team of “Ragtime” presents this epic tale in just under three hours. There is so much heart in this production that I found myself wishing I could get up and dance and cheer throughout the show.

Jared Joseph as Colehouse Walker, Jr. and Cast (Photo by Cliff Roles)

The entire cast is noteworthy, particularly Garrabrant and Darrow who have a canny knack for bringing forth the rare comedic elements of the show. Each of these privileged young men experiences an awakening, and they help the audience share their journey. However, my highest praise is reserved for Ollmann and Joseph. These unlikely friends are the emotional centerpieces of the show, and every time either is on stage, you cannot take your eyes off of them. They both have very bright futures on Broadway to be sure, and Sarasota audiences are lucky get to see them in such an intimate setting.

This production of “Ragtime” is exactly the show we need right now and is certain to spark a great deal of important dialogue. Surprisingly, our country is revisiting every issue raised in “Ragtime” in our current political climate, and this masterpiece is a wonderful way to help us talk about these issues with the benefit of historical context. Don’t miss it!

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