A mosaic, made of Tesserae, usually tells a story. A crazy quilt, made of rags, does not. Ragtime, the novel, tried to be both. It interwove the stories of three groups – Wasp, black, and Jewish immigrant – against a background of early-twentieth-century America: eccentric, bumptious, chaotic. Ragtime: The Musical attempts to be mostly mosaic: connect, make sense, tell a story. But also keep some of the eccentricities and extremes – Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman – visible in the interstices. What E. L. Doctorow just about managed in the greater space of the novel, the show can’t carry off: It is a mosaic that keeps slipping into a crazy quilt.
Doctorow had the bold, gallant idea of writing in a style equivalent to ragtime. The simple, declarative sentences avoid hypotaxis. But they do, syncopatedly, tell about the Wasp family with generic names (Father, Mother, etc.). Intercut with this are references to famous or notorious individuals, as well as grand generalizations; this, in a way, represents the stride bass. To be sure, Doctorow is eventually forced to relax so rigid a schema, but its spirit hangs in.
There is an allegorical purpose. The beautiful Wasp Mother, widowed, marries the formerly penniless Jewish immigrant Tateh (not a name, merely Yiddish for daddy), now a successful filmmaker and self-styled Baron Ashkenazy. Her Little Boy and his Little Girl become affectionate siblings, even potential spouses. And there is another, tiny, black child in this new family.
This is Coalhouse Walker III. He is the illegitimate son of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a jazz pianist who impregnated and abandoned a young girl, Sarah. She hid her newborn in the soil of the Wasp family’s garden. Mother discovered it, and adopted both Sarah and her child while Father was off with Admiral Peary seeking the North Pole. Then Coalhouse came looking for Sarah, but she wouldn’t leave her attic room to meet him. Yet, after many a Sunday call from her suitor, she finally relented, and a wedding was in the offing when disaster struck. Their child is the third ingredient in Doctorow’s melting pot; the musical ends as Tateh, Mother, and the three kids go off happily into the sunset or to California, which is pretty much the same thing.
In between comes the tragedy of Coalhouse, an updating of the famous novella by Heinrich von Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas, about a horse trader whom “the sense of justice turned into a robber and murderer.” Coalhouse merely turns killer when racist bullies wreck his beloved Model T Ford and indirectly cause Sarah’s violent death. This makes him the leader of a small band of murderous rebels.
Such a basically serious, yet also sardonic, work demands a deft book-writer, and Terrence McNally, who did well with Kiss of the Spider Woman, has done so again here. He lopped and chopped skillfully, and preserved all the essentials except the ironic tone. He came up with the device of having characters relate their further experiences in the third person, an alienation effect that fits in with Eugene Lee’s scenic concept. Lee combines unrealistic towers on the sides of the stage with a wooden stage floor that can sprout a bit of a garden here, some boardwalk there. A life-size living room contrasts nicely with a miniature house, a full-size segment of a ship downstage with the entire ship in miniature upstage. Three-dimensional pieces fuse with computerized background images as construction smoothly embraces projection. Atlantic City is especially ravishing.
But there are oddities. Why, for instance, is Evelyn Nesbit’s red velvet swing neither red nor especially velvety? Why do we switch to vaudeville for the shooting of her famous lover, the architect Stanford White, by her crazy millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw? Why does the otherwise apt director, Frank Galati, cast a typical chorus boy as the sturdy White, and a White look-alike as the measly Thaw? Why is the murder trial turned into a burlesque sketch, and Evelyn herself into a Marilyn Monroe parody?
Elsewhere Galati’s staging is persuasive, especially as abetted by Graciela Daniele’s choreography, which arises imperceptibly from the stage movement and, equally inconspicuously, subsides back into it. Add to this the jaunty costumes of Santo Loquasto, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek, and the always painterly lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and you have quite a spectacle.
Stephen Flaherty has composed two or three very catchy ragtime numbers, but they get reprised irritatingly often: An entire song cannot act as a leitmotiv. In between, there are ballads and anthems that lack distinction and, even more, wit. Nor does his regular collaborator, Lynn Ahrens, do any better with the lyrics: They are serviceable but pedestrian, with a sprinkling of the bizarre that barely masks the commonplace. However, William David Brohn’s clever orchestrations help us across many a barren spot.
Brian Stokes Mitchell would be a first-rate Coalhouse were he not too dapper and too pale. Unlike Doctorow’s older, heavier, and darker-skinned man, this Coalhouse could have driven past the racist firemen without being taken for a black. As the brittle and girlish Sarah, Audra McDonald, a barreling powerhouse of a woman and singer, is all wrong, especially when she tries to act girlish with mincing steps that look like some kind of hopscotch. Mark Jacoby’s ploddingly sedulous quality almost works for Father yet is finally too simplistic.
But Marin Mazzie is an altogether satisfying Mother,s even with an anachronistic coating of feminism imposed on her. (Other anachronisms include a new line for Peary’s black assistant.) Peter Friedman’s Tateh, perhaps a shade too farcical, is nevertheless endearing; Jim Corti is a credible Houdini, and Judy Kaye a good-as-gold Emma Goldman. Steven Sutcliffe nicely conveys Mother’s Younger Brother’s smartness as well as benightedness; Lynnette Perry, whose part is unfortunately decimated, was probably misdirected into making Evelyn Marilyn. The children are apt enough for us to forgive their staying the same age throughout.
The restored and fused Apollo and Lyric Theaters have yielded the lovely and comfortable Ford Center for the Performing Arts; may there be many Tauruses in its future, and the fewest possible Edsels.