Revisiting ‘Ragtime’


After seeing Drury Lane’s amazing production of “Ragtime” last weekend, I knew I’d be coming back for a second viewing.

I wasn’t expecting that repeat experience to be the very next weekend. However, my mom came for a surprise Easter visit (my mom is awesome, so she can surprise visit any time she wants), and I thought it would be something she might enjoy.

And, boy, did she! I think I heard her say “wow” about four times in the first act. And she knew absolutely nothing about the show or the score going into it. A Ragtime newbie.

My thoughts? The performances have grown richer and deeper, and, musically, the show is tighter (what a difference a week makes!). Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) and Valisia LeKae (Sarah) must have rehearsed the ending of “Wheels of a Dream” — it’s a hard song to finish together with that big gap between “On the wheeeeels!…(pause)…of a dreeeeeaaaam!” And they did it on a strong, unified note. LaKae has also notably grown in the role.

(But someone please get LaKae a new wig! It’s WAY too big for her small frame.)

The otherwise brilliant Mark David Kaplan (Tateh) seemed to have some vocal difficulty. He blew the last note in “Gliding” — starting it three times, and then just giving up. Though, he’s giving a wonderfully endearing performance, and is clearly the audience favorite.

Corey Goodrich is is a warm and radiant Mother. One of my favorite musical performances of late.

The band sounds great under the leadership of Ben Johnson. And music director Roberta Duchak keeps that huge ensemble’s harmonies tight and clear.

Also, I have to mention this, because it’s been bugging me: Time out Chicago’s review of Ragtime found the production strong, but had problems with the story. Fine. But this passage of John Beer’s review rubs me the wrong way:

The center of Doctorow’s tale, pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s (Darrington) humiliation and bid for justice, remains gripping but must cede the stage too often to the insipid immigrant Tateh (Kaplan), who serves primarily as an advertisement for the Marriott’s rival Fiddler on the Roof.

First off, I’m not sure how Tateh comes across as “insipid.” I’d like Beer to qualify that in some way — hard, I know, with a 300 word limit. And then breezily comparing his story to that of Tevye’s (I’m assuming that’s what he means) in Fiddler is particularly derisive. I’m not Jewish, but to imply that one Jewish story is just like any other Jewish story is offensive. I mean, Tateh makes the dangerous passage to America to build a new life for his daughter. He’s eager to adapt to realize his goal — and he does. Whereas Tevye finds comfort in tradition, and would rather cut off his right hand than change.

I like Time Out Chicago on the whole, but sometimes their reviews are just too clever for their own good.

Anyway: video clips of Ragtime are now posted on Drury Lane’s website! Check them out > (Click on the “videos” tab.)

Also: Read my review of the show >

4 thoughts on “Revisiting ‘Ragtime’

  1. “The center of Doctorow’s tale, pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s (Darrington) humiliation and bid for justice, remains gripping but must cede the stage too often to the insipid immigrant Tateh (Kaplan), who serves primarily as an advertisement for the Marriott’s rival Fiddler on the Roof.”

    Without sounding whatever… what a dumb thing to write. Yes, the Coalhouse plot is probably the most interesting in Ragtime, but it’s a three-headed story: Coalhouse, Mother, and Tateh.

    That Fiddler comparison is.. groan-worthy.

  2. Well, this is something new.

    My problem with Tateh is that he’s a kitschified caricature. It’s not Mark David Kaplan’s fault; I think he does the best he can with a bad hand. Rather than a character, Tateh is nothing but type: the Striving, Good-Hearted Immigrant. He has this in common with most of the show’s figures. I found his case a little more irritating than most, though, I suppose for the same kind of identity politics reasons that motivate the post: it’s one thing to reduce the WASPy overlords to soulless automata, and another to do that to the huddled immigrant masses.

    Fiddler, on the other hand, is a masterpiece, featuring actual individuals who make up an actual, complicated community. During Tateh’s first act number with his daughter, which I thought bordered on self-parody, I remembered that the Marriott was doing Fiddler, and wished I could see that serious portrayal of persons and cultures rather than what I had in front of me. It’s telegraphed, as everything is in these reviews, but I don’t think it’s anti-semitic or even particularly disrespectful to Ragtime. (I mean, I don’t think it’s a cheap shot.)

    Jamie, you are certainly right that Ragtime has three main stories. If we think of it as a tripod rather than a hydra, the problem is clear, from my point of view: The show simply fails to make two of those stories compelling. We get their outlines, rather than any kind of lived experience. So the play ends up all tilted over.

    Look, it’s ambitious, & Drury Lane is doing a beautiful production. I even recommended it, for heaven’s sake. But it is a play with serious issues, one of which is that it doesn’t really take its characters and their stories as seriously as they demand.

    Thanks for reading,
    John

    1. John, thanks for replying. I greatly appreciate it. While I don’t necessarily agree with your thoughts on the Tateh plotline, I do now better understand your reasoning — something the abstracted Time Out Chicago format doesn’t always allow.

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