From “Ragtime” to Riches: Warner Theatre Musical Explores American Dream

When Director Sharon Wilcox introduced Ragtime: The Musical on opening night last Saturday on the Warner Theatre main stage in Torrington, she told the audience we were not going to like everything we were about to see.

That was true. But it turns out the heavy moments you don’t want to see in the musical are the most crucial in the gravity of the show and portrayal of history.

In a Love Actually sort of plot structure, the show weaves back and forth between different story lines that, while separate, intertwine in the greater context. Stories like that can be tricky because the story splits off into several subplots that overlap instead of having one linear storyline, so it was sometimes hard to follow. A lot of the story is advanced by the text, so you need to be a good listener to get the most out of Ragtime. But in a show about the American Dream, it was important to have the story told from different characters, not just one protagonist.

A show is only as strong as its ensemble. With a cast of 66, Ragtime not only had strength in numbers, but strength in intricacies, ensemble energy and precision that breathed depth and detail into the community of 20th Century New York City. It’s up to the ensemble to portray an urban melting pot that has to overcome prejudice and injustice brewing that burn bridges between members of three groups represented – the often uptight and guarded white upper class, the soulful and spirited black and ethnic population and the newly arrived immigrant dreamers striving to survive in a new, promising world.

With limited action in terms of a consistent plot to follow, the show relied heavily on the music, under the direction of Dan Koch, and movement/dance, as choreographed by Sheila Waters Fucci, to propel the story. The Ragtime prologue, a musical theme that recurs throughout the show with syncopated, bouncy notes was one of the most memorable numbers. Movement and dancing were integral in giving each of the groups character and making the community believable. From the rigid but poised dance of the upper class to the fun, free-flowing motion of the exuberant urban, ethnic group, the dancing represented the societal barriers, union within social classes and each distinctive take on the American Dream and way of life.

Toward the beginning, Tateh (Dan Porri), a Jewish immigrant, brings his little girl (Kennedy Morris) to New York City on a boat as a an outwardly positive but inwardly lonely upperclass mother (Rebekah Derrick) says goodbye to her husband (Pat Spaulding) who sails away from America on yet another world tour in a symbolic number called “Journey On.” The two men have a shared moment as the two ships pass by each other, with Tateh asking why someone could possibly want to leave America and the father admiring the immigrant’s courage on the “rag ship” to start a new life in what is supposed to be a land where any dream can come true.

The scene is done without any ships on set and is one of many moments where the actors look out to the great beyond as thought there’s something to see before them. The reliance on audience and actor imagination symbolizes looking out onto the horizon at the American Dream everyone seeks.

Tateh progresses from selling silhouettes and flip books to making movies, capturing the history of the era and storyline of each character in silhouettes. Despite a bare, black set with the usual high platform upstage, the changing colors from blues to reds and oranges projected in lighting on the backdrop make the set pop. As the actors walk through open doors below the platform and across the upper level and pose, the lowered lights on the cast outline them in shadows, real-life versions of Tateh’s silhouettes. The elegant and historical period costumes designed by costumer Renee Purdy ornamented the set very nicely.

As Tateh rises from rags to attain his American dream, we watch as the arc reverses for an optimistic Harlem ragtime musician named Coalhouse Walker Jr. (John E. Carter) trying to get back together with Sarah (Gia Wright), the mother of his child. Prejudice against his skin color, bullying, despair and injustice turn a happy dreamer into a raging criminal.

There are many unsavory moments in the show that make you cringe, including shootings arising from misunderstandings, child trafficking, a baby discarded in the dirt, racism, bullying, use of the “n-word” and deaths of a couple lead characters. Those moments of injustice even had me crying. That speaks to the jarring messages this production is able to get across to the audience, making us really think about our country today versus 1900s America. I typically prefer comedy and want to laugh when I go to the theater, so processing the dark themes was sometimes an emotional roller coaster and I can’t say I enjoyed all of the story, but it clearly impacted the audience members who were dead silent at the end of Act 1 after very macabre and somber scene. There’s another related part later on that made many people gasp and sigh in protest. But I won’t give it away.

It’s shocking to see people behave with prejudice in the show, though some of that hate still does exist in a different form, but it’s an important part of history that gave our country the identity it has today by overcoming differences and struggles. Just like there were debates over spelling out the “n-word” in modern reprints of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” written by former Hartford resident Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), I tend to support inclusion of the controversial language and scenes because otherwise it would diminish the meaning of the show and censor historic art. I won’t write that word here because I admit I’m very uncomfortable with it myself and internet life is eternal, but you get the picture.

Someone once said to my cast in another show that the beauty of theater is that we’re preserving history and spreading the knowledge to our audiences throughout generations. Ragtime does exactly that. It teaches us about the history in a way that textbooks cannot.

The violence itself is mostly done through stage combat and suggestion without gore or even any startling gunshot sound effects. Actors do point prop guns at the audience, directing the controversies in the story at us and breaking the “wall” between stage and public a little, but it wasn’t frightening without the booming sound effects. One of the shootings happens off-stage with the loudest bang, which leaves it up to our imagination, but it would have been much more graphic to see it before our eyes. By not showing that scene, it elevates the shock factor because you don’t know what’s waiting for that particular character. The violence is handled very tastefully.

While there are tough scenes to get through in the roughly three-hour play, the production itself was phenomenal. Yes, there are some moments you won’t want to see, but let me tell you about the things you will want to see. First and foremost, you’ll want to see this show. As Wilcox said in her remarks, it tells the story of America and the American Dream. She likened it to Les Misérables, one of my favorite musicals. Ragtime‘s music, and I mean as written not as performed, doesn’t rise to the stature and emotional impact of Les Mis and the songs weren’t as memorable, but I can see what she means in the hope that pierces through the tragic story lines as people living in the worlds of both shows dare to dream a dream.

My favorite number was “What a Game!” when the upperclass father (Pat Spaulding) and his little boy (Trevor Rinaldi) go to a baseball game and experience the comical, playful roughhousing dynamic of boys being boys. With the help of the male ensemble, it gave the show something to laugh about against the parts that made you cry.

You’ll want to hang onto every word in the monologues introducing many of the characters, some of whom you’ll recognize from history class like Booker T. Washington (Jamal Ford-Bey) and Henry Ford (James Murphy). The monologues set up the characters for the whole show, so if you miss any of them, you might find yourself a little lost regarding who’s who. As a frequent ensemble actress in productions with the Warner Stage Company, Theatre Guild of Simsbury and Suffield Players, I admittedly got distracted during the monologues as I watched to look at every cast member’s interaction and expression and searched for some of my theater friends on stage (shout out to Will Dalton, Madalyn Sheehy, Cole Sutton, Branden Daniels, Nina Drozdenko, Doreen Lopez, Kerri Morris, Lyn Nagel, Ruben Soto, Kristen VanDerlyn, Morgana Kate Watson, Lyle Ressler and John Mullen Jr.!). Not having looked at my program, it took me until the end to realize Booker T. Washington was one of the characters.

The chorus seemed a little tentative in volume in the first big number, but as it went on it built upon itself and became quite powerful. There were some microphone issues with feedback at select places in the show and some of the minor characters without microphones were hard to hear, but otherwise the sound was quite nice.

Poori’s (Tateh) clear tenor and Derrick’s (Mother) booming soprano voices are stunning and had no problem filling the main stage auditorium. Some of the most impressive voices came from Carter (Coalhouse Walker Jr.) and Wright (Sarah) and Karen Robertson, Sarah’s friend, who sing with an essence of gospel that fills you with joy.

The concept of dreaming also manifests itself in the magnificent stars on pedestals as the public idolizes the arts and hopes to achieve such greatness someday. Rhiannon Carta plays the shallow, flighty and talented showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit, who depicts the showmanship of justice and value of appearance as she belts with alluring vibrato as she swings over an audience of judges. Wee!

I’d read in a review by Nancy Sasso Janis before the show that my friend, Meric Martin would be hard to pick out at first until you heard his voice and she was absolutely right. I came into the show blind and didn’t look at the cast of characters or read much about the story. As I watched the thin actor playing magician Harry Houdini jolt with fervor to get out of a straight jacket in an escape act and walk with the grace of a ballet dancer across the raised platform, I noted the impressive physicality of movement and wondered who was playing that part. But then I recognized a melodious, operatic tenor voice and instantly knew it was Martin. He is one of those versatile actors who can take on a part unrecognizable from both himself and any other roles he’s played and really bring the character to life. He’s full of surprises. Houdini, known as a great escape artist and magician, is another symbol of the magical concept of the American Dream and the illusions you have to break through to attain it.

Of all the storylines, Tateh’s is the one I most enjoyed, perhaps because I adored the pairing of Porri and Morris as they remain optimistic despite all their struggles and push toward a happy ending. Porri brings comedy and charisma to the character that are beacons of light in a show full of darkness and tragedy. Keep an eye on Morris. She may be little, but she has a sweet, powerful voice that exceeds her age and she puts her all into every role with a smile. That girl is going places and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her in the national spotlight someday.

Another young actor in the show who has a lot of promise is Trevor Rinaldi who plays the main upperclass family’s little boy. From his innocent honesty to his obscure “warn the Duke” recurring line, Rinaldi carries himself very maturely and has an exceptional voice.

Joe Harding has played the gamut of roles from Coach Benny Van Buren in Damn Yankees to demon barber Sweeney Todd. In Ragtime he plays a villain or a defender of the norm depending on your perspective as Fire Chief Willie Conklin. The character is an example of what stands in the way of unity between cultures, perpetuating segregation and racism in his bullying antics that stand in the way of the American Dream for some. Harding, who is a very nice person in real life, emotes strong characters and really had you both hating Conklin and sympathizing for Coalhouse’s obstacles in attaining equality.

Going back to the idea of the layered storytelling, I did miss the explanation about what happened to the upperclass father played by Pat Spaulding. The character noticeably disappears from the story after an intense moment toward the end that changes his stubborn way of thinking about the American melting pot and justice. I wanted a happy ending for him that matched his enthusiasm on the ship leaving America in the beginning of the play as he showed some admiration for the immigrants coming to his country to find a better life. When he returned from the trip in the beginning, he seemed like a completely different person who was intolerant of anything untraditional and that surprised me. But he changes in the very end and I was disappointed his storyline was so abrupt.

But the moment that stole the show came from a kid who is only in one scene. When Anthony Boswell (Coalhouse Walker III) ran onto the stage to hug his family in one of the last scenes, he won all of our hearts and got immense applause.

I’m glad that Sharon Wilcox achieved her own 10-year American Dream of doing this show on the Warner main stage because it’s an experience in history and art that you won’t want to miss.

Closing weekend runs Friday, Nov. 7 and Saturday, Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ticket information is available on the Warner Theatre website.