Living in America today is like trying to stay upright in the face of a howling gale. Information pours in like a burning torrent, the chattering of insistent voices elbowing one another for our attention—all with assurance they need to be heard, most with adamantine certainty, so many in desperate conflict in a moment at which the basic moral order of dignity, autonomy, and decency are somehow in question amid arguments that feel like shadow play.
It feels new, but it isn’t. The best American art has always reflected the desperate conflict for power and supremacy in a nation that Leonard Cohen acutely called the “cradle of the best and of the worst.” From the original sins of conquest and slavery to the heights of Enlightenment ideals and the lurching steps of atonement in the 20th century, it’s never been easy to pin down exactly what’s going on here: What’s the balance, the weight? What’s the story?
This is quite a bit to hang onto a stage musical, but Ragtime bears it with a good deal of grace. Theater Latté Da’s production directed by Peter Rothstein opts for an elegant, polished take on a dark and conflicted work, one that makes a good deal of sense on its own terms and allows its characters to come around to their own moments of bittersweet fulfillment.
Based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel of the same name, Ragtime is a sprawling, aching thing that embraces an earnestness that can verge on clumsily allegorical. Still, this cast at the Ritz Theater grabs on and doesn’t let go. We have the parallel stories of the immigrant Tateh (Sasha Andreev) and African-American pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (David L. Murray, Jr.) digging into the two main strains of the American struggle—those who have come here searching to lose the shackles of their previous lives, and those who have literally come here in bondage.
A four-piece band directed by Denise Prosek delivers a stripped-back sound that meshes with a similarly spare set by Michael Hoover (both can dial up the complexity with aplomb when needed, so we know their restraint is in the name of vision) to lay bare the emotional core of a swirl that meshes the famous (Harry Houdini) with the scandalous and the anonymous in a crystallized moment of American yearning, injustice, violence, and blind hope.
It’s almost impossible not to view a play that touches on resentment of immigrants and violence against African Americans without thinking about that wind blowing in all our faces today. But, again, here’s why Ragtime resonates—it’s unfortunately timeless, but then it’s simply not enough to say that things stay the same the more they apparently change.
To be American is to believe in optimism—not without acknowledging the ugly, or hiding from the truth. Real optimism holds hands with realism. And at its best, this take on Ragtime points us in that direction—the kind of cathartic experience that shatters the static and affords a moment of clarity. The winds aren’t going to stop blowing, but we can stay on our feet by remembering the power of dignity, the poetry of people coming together in a fundamental belief in knowing right from wrong. There’s a nobility in this show that makes it worth seeing; it can stoke that fire in the heart that will need to burn in the years to come.
Ragtime plays at the Ritz Theater through October 23. Tickets here.