This musical has so much; it is so rich. It is a cascade of characters who are fully drawn, with captivating arcs. It’s a litany of singing performances, CMU’s great bastion of talent loading all of their guns at once and firing three-part harmonies and swelling solos up and through the soul again and again and again. It’s cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and by that I mean: rich, camp and unrelenting. It’s saccharine and tangy, but also somber and fierce. It is a musical with everything. Everything twice. And it’s exhausting, but tremendous.
This is a show meant to excite, challenge, enrage and instill a sense of empathy for the common man. This show examines the life of an individual through the scope of their experience in American history. It is an expansion of what a life is like in a broader context, but it is also a treatise on what it is to be American: the saga of hope and the potential for defiance against stereotype and bland trajectory. It is a mission statement for what music can come from opportunity.
This piece is also wholly relevant in confronting an oppressive obelisk in this country’s patterned and horrible xenophobic and racist foundation; dealing with its citizens, both new and native, with unconscionable indignities redeemed only by perseverance and solidarity.
It’s not every day you see a pro-socialist play.
It’s not every day you see anarchists blaze the stage as protagonists, with bombs bursting in air.
It’s not every day you see the archetype of a white woman who fiercely defends inclusion and empathy towards people of other races. This is a feminist play. It is also aggressively liberal with its determination towards equal rights and representation.
Let me back up. This play is about ragtime:
“Small, clear chords hung in the air like flowers. The melodies were like bouquets. There seemed to be no other possibilities for life than those delineated by his music.”
The play follows three sets of tribes: white people, black people, and immigrants; as they collide and intersect amidst a roaring scape of American hardship and prosperity, celebrity and history; in the early part of the 1900’s.
It is a songbook. Following the rag of John Clay III’s Coalhouse Walker Jr., a pianist whose illustrative interpretation of how music, simple and sublime, can give the nation a new syncopation. Clay does an outstanding job bringing the weight of the character’s strong hold on the zeitgeist to his leading role, his belting sustained notes carry the auditorium.
As previously mentioned, there are a litany of solos. Many songs that share the gorgeous bigness of CMU’s voices. Hanna Berggren’s Mother withholds such a tightly strung presence for a seemingly conservative early 20th Century white woman, and though her movements are pensive and ladylike her voice booms out an emotional reckoning which scintillates an era of strange empathy denoting the epitome of American humanity. This is fully realized in Berggren’s “Back to Before”, a crucially emotional and swelling song that builds, binds and destroys. As a friend put it, “makes for a full-on ugly cry.”
CMU has to be acknowledged for their “ballsiness” in going head first into accents. Following this year’s full-cast doting Northern Irish brogues for Playboy of the Western World; this play sees Latvian, Hungarian, Russian, and German accents. Perhaps none stands out as much as the Caribbean accent donned by Arica Jackson’s Sarah. She holds this voice with such esteem, and carries the raw, visceral emotion for tear-jerker songs like “Your Daddy’s Son” And “President” without so much as a sliver of reveal that it’s all of the act. It’s a truly captivating performance.
The same could be said for Clay Singer’s Tateh. He really brings this role into a masterfully starry-eyed composition. More than any other character, I empathized with his struggle. I believed him. I believed his humor, his optimism and the piercing, glowing hope that sang his songs for him. Accolades to Singer, for his talent seems to be a treasure lotted to him by surname. He embodies this role.
There were so many amazing performers. So many top-notch songs. Amanda Fallon Smith’s Evelyn Nesbit had me swooning in my seat. Her comedic timing is a gift, and the choreography was excellent. Lea DiMarchi’s Emma Goldman truly found the punchy, antagonistic severity of Goldman’s bite and was able to place it in song.
The set was outrageously cool. A trio of three story spinning platforms unfolding the different settings with like the gears of a clock twirling buildings. The choreography stung as well. This show pulled out all the stops and really flew into an exhaustive sway and array of musics, emotions and displays of pure talent. I left the theater with stars twirling around my head.
I think the relevance of this play really shines in thinking of resistance as an option. An American ideal is self-affirmation, but then there are other selves. This is a nation of others, and of sovereignty betrayed by neighbors sharing space. What can that mean except for a choice between accepting outsiders as brothers and sisters, or defying the creed of democracy and spiting a people for their alien identity? To put it musically: How does a lyrical revolutionary deal with injustice? How does a black man who creates lyrical music deal with white racial exploitation? How does a Mother share her empathy beyond her children, to all those in need of help and saving?
This musical turns the bleeding heart into a firework. It’s brilliant and catchy and honest, though perhaps I should acknowledge it’s pretty historicized fiction.
Regardless, it’s a brocade of floral ribbon painting the whole picture of integration with red, white, blue; and through and through, the whole rainbow. What is ‘America’ as a theme? It’s klezmer, brass bands with the gentle parlor music and the Harlem rags versus the Tin Pan Alley Rags of Atlantic City. It’s Harlem meets Irving Berlin. It’s a nation on the precipice of profound change. It’s a world where there was suffering and now there’s penitence. It’s grand, and I’d hope you see it.
Special thanks to the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama for complimentary tickets. Ragtime runs through March 4 but it has managed to sell out in advance. For more information about CMU Drama’s season, click here.