Through October 14
RAGTIME Festival Theatre/Shaw Festival
By Augustine Warner
The musical “Ragtime” may be about America a century ago, but for Canada, it's a homecoming.
Before its long run on Broadway, the show began its life in Toronto tryouts and performances.
There were probably people in the Shaw Festival audience who saw that original run.
The best part of the show and the worst lies in its origins in E.L. Doctorow's award-winning novel.
If you need another hundred pages to tell another thread of a plot, that's not a problem, as Doctorow has repeatedly proven.
On stage, it's more problematical.
That's especially true in a story like this with endless plots and twists to the point the stage performance runs nearly three hours, long for a musical these days, even a great one like this getting a great performance.
When you boil it all down, this is a tale of romance and revenge and violence.
Doctorow mixed real people like Emma Goldman (Kate Hennig), Booker T. Washington (Aadin Church) and J.P. Morgan (Anthony Malarky) with his invented White and Black protagonists.
The tale revolves around an upper crust fireworks manufacturing family living in New Rochelle with the tragic tale of ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Thom Allison).
Coalhouse had a fling with Sarah (Alana Hibbert) and she had a baby which she abandoned in a flower box on the home of the White family.
At the time, Father (Benedict Campbell) is off on an expedition to the North Pole with Admiral Robert Peary and Mother (Patty Jamieson) is somewhat in charge.
She takes in the infant and mother and eventually Coalhouse shows up looking for his son.
He's really doing well with music and has nice clothes and a nice Model T.
Actually he's doing too well for the volunteer fire fighters near where Sarah and the infant are living and they beat him up, destroy his car and make sure the police and the New Rochelle city government won't do anything about it.
Then, Sarah is beaten to death by some police officers and Coalhouse starts to take revenge, with murders and fire-bombings and eventually an attack on J.P. Morgan's home.
That's the story.
It's often buried in stories about radical activist Goldman or immigration and the Latvian immigrant Tateh (Jay Turvey) and his daughter, celebrity adulterer Evelyn Nesbit (Julie Martell) and Harry Houdini (Kelly Wong).
So much story and such limited time.
It all mixes Doctorow's book, Terrence McNally's book for the musical, Stephen Flaherty's music and Lynn Ahrens lyrics.
And, of course the ragtime music itself, influenced by creators like Scott Joplin.
Director Jackie Maxwell, musical director Paul Sportelli and his 16 member orchestra, choreographer Valerie Moore, set and costume designer Sue LePage, lighting designer Alan Brodie, sound designer John Lott and projections designers Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson have created a marvelous canvas for their musical tapestry.
They are working with some strong performances, especially Allison's Coalhouse, Hibbert's Sarah, Turvey's Tateh, Jamieson's Mother and Nichola Lawrence's Sarah's Friend.
The show is filled with extravagant production numbers like “The Getting Ready Rag,” “The Night that Goldman spoke at Union Square, “What a Game” about baseball, Jamieson and Turvey's “Our Children” and Jamieson's “Back to Before.
There are special results from Allison and Hibbert with “Wheels of a Dream” and Allison with the weighted message to his supporters knowing he's certain to die “Make Them Hear You.”
There's way too much to the story and it can become confusing at times, so read the book when you get a chance.
As far as seeing “Ragtime” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, absolutely go.
You will not regret the trip.
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