The first act of the musical Ragtime, running through Sunday, July 15 at Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre, takes a grand look at early 20th century America and the aspirations of some of its influential figures. Harry Houdini (AJ Allegra) celebrates that an immigrant can become famous in the U.S. Henry Ford (Keith Claverie) extols the virtue of his assembly line and hopes its workers will be able to buy the cars they make. Booker T. Washington says exemplary behavior by blacks will help whites overcome their racial hatred and fear. Anarchist Emma Goldman sees more of a battle ahead, but she thinks immigrants and workers can organize to improve their lots.
Ragtime follows three main characters who are caught up in the sweeping social changes of the era. Pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brandon Nase) has become a famous and wealthy performer in Harlem and beyond. Mother (Leslie Castay) assumes temporary control of her family’s household in suburban New Rochelle when her husband joins Admiral Peary on an expedition to the North Pole. And Tateh (Kevin Murphy), a Latvian immigrant and artist, tries to find a better life for himself and his daughter in New York. In an early number, groups of immigrants, black clubgoers from Harlem and white residents of New Rochelle move together in clusters on stage under Michael McKelvey’s direction, as the story delves into the social changes that affect Coalhouse, Mother and Tateh’s lives.
Jefferson Turner leads a 26-piece orchestra on a rousing delivery of Stephen Flaherty’s score. The production is full of impressive singing, including solos by Nase (“Make Them Hear You”), Castay (“What Kind of Woman”), Charis Gullage (“Your Daddy’s Son”), the duet “Wheels of a Dream” by Nase and Gullage and many group numbers. Whitney Mixon was excellent on “Till We Reach that Day,” but much of the ensemble number was muddled by a volume of competing voices.
The production uses video projections that help capture the scale of the story, with views of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor and imposing rows of tenement housing in the city. Period costumes are detailed but the set is minimal, which allows the 38-member cast to move on Dixon Hall’s relatively modest stage. McKelvey deftly orchestrates busy numbers, such as “Crime of the Century,” in which Vaudeville performer Evelyn Nesbitt swings on a giant rolling swing, surrounded by frilly costumed dancing girls, a clownish group of jurors, her suitors and other gawkers. Goldman drops in to note that the century has a long way to go, and she expects more crimes may be looming.
There are signs of social progress in Act 1. Coalhouse is gaining fame and buys a car. Mother is exhilarated by running the family business and eagerly takes responsibility for helping those less fortunate. Ragtime is a musical genre attracting new ears.
For all the optimism about the shaping of the nation in the new century, there is plenty of growing tension. As Coalhouse drives to visit his love, Sarah, he encounters racist backlash over his success from volunteer firemen who hold onto resentment about previous discrimination against Irish Americans. Tateh finds that the land of opportunity can be unforgiving as he struggles to earn a living. Racism is rampant, and when Coalhouse’s car is vandalized in New Rochelle, police refuse to investigate.
The exposition of historical context is largely completed in Act 1, and the second half focuses on the main characters’ intertwined plights. Coalhouse battles for justice. Mother’s life has changed though Father has come back from his expedition. Tateh acclimates to his new life.
Terrence McNally’s book is full of poetic flourishes. Houdini talks of escaping the traps immigrants are caught in. Tateh comes out of the shadows to visualize a new life. There is a constant focus on children inheriting a new world, and they often say prophetic things. Some parts of the story are particularly timely. When coming through Ellis Island, Tateh ties a rope to his daughter because he’s afraid of being separated from his child.
Ragtime is no fairytale, and the conflicting figures can’t all escape unscathed.
There are strong performances throughout, especially by Nase, Castay and Murphy. Ragtime is designed for a grand interpretation, and Summer Lyric Theatre makes the most of its epic take on early 20th century America.