Chance Theater’s Stripped-Down Ragtime Resonates

Same song, different century. Photo by Doug Catiller

It’s ridiculous to think a 21-year-old musical based on a 1975 novel set in the first decade of the 20th century was ahead of its time. It’s about as ridiculous as giving the musical treatment to E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, which had no real dialogue but did have, among others, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and—oh, what the hell—anarchist Emma Goldman.

But in the 1990s, Broadway had a hard-on for Big American Stories, broaching everything from The Grapes of Wrath to the Civil War to the Titanic, so why not throw $10 million at Ragtime? And it’s not like it didn’t get noticed: It ran two years and earned 13 Tony Awards (although it still lost money and the Best Musical garland, which went to Disney’s Lion King).

However, the critical consensus seemed to be that there wasn’t much of a heart beating inside this lavish show set against the birth of what would become known as the American Century. In the words of The New York Times’ Ben Brantley, the play seemed to lack a subconscious, it was a “parade that never strays too far from Main Street.”

That’s definitely not the impression left by Casey Stangl’s production at the Chance Theater. The three main concerns of immigration, race and gender equity are so conscious that it’s hard to imagine this show wasn’t written by that same goofy autobot that generates earthquake stories on deadline for the Los Angeles Times.

Stangl’s stripped-down version—light on effects and scenery—underscores the contemporary resonance. The biggest knock on the Terrence McNally book and Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ score was a lack of character development. It’s the same show, so that’s still a problem, but tossing out the bells and whistles means the smaller moments speak volumes. And no moment is more magnified than that when a young boy asks his mother why a child is tied to her father with a rope, and the mother explains immigrants are terrified of losing their children. 

Even in this more economical version, 32 musical numbers remain, along with a lot of story, much of which seems superfluous, draining focus from the production’s three intersecting stories. There’s Whitey, the well-heeled comfortable suburbanites of New Rochelle, New York, as personified by Father (Ron Hastings), a decent-enough man who’s incapable of dealing with the rapid demographic changes of the country or his wife’s (Rachel Oliveros Catalano) brazen yearning to be more of a human and less of his property. There’s the Other, the fresh-off-the-literal-boat immigrants from Eastern Europe, embodied by the character of Tateh (a commanding Wyn Moreno), who sees the American Dream can make for a very rough first and 100th impression. And then there’s the flip side of that American Dream, the black folks, chiefly Coalhouse Walker (Sony Wright), a Harlem ragtime pianist whose attempt to rectify the mistakes of his past goes terribly awry.

It’d be tough for any play to juggle what is essentially three plots in one, and with so many characters and musical numbers, even Stangl’s more muscular production isn’t enough to keep things from feeling as if they’re stuck in second gear some of the time. But thanks to a uniformly well-voiced cast and killer six-member band, the rhythm slows at times but never breaks. And that makes what is arguably Ragtime’s chief concern very clear: the injustices heaped upon Coalhouse and the system’s inability to grant him any redress.

Though this Ragtime ends the same way as previous incarnations, it doesn’t. I remember the 1997 Los Angeles pre-Broadway production; even amid the story’s stark ending, there was an odd sort of optimism that somehow made the Ragtime of that era almost a feel-good story (the anthemic score didn’t hurt).

It’s hard to feel that good at this show’s conclusion, which is odd in itself. Whatever the monkeys in your head whom you’ve chosen to tune into to make sense of our current situation are telling you, it seems self-evident that at no time in this nation’s history have issues of social justice, gender equity and the human beings at the center of the immigration debate been championed by so many. Yet rising nativism; cheap, obfuscating bullshit such as #AllLivesMatter; and detention centers in every state, including two in Santa Ana, serve as ominous counterweights. Twenty-one years ago, it was almost fun thinking that the moral arc of the universe was bending, slowly but inexorably, toward something that did more than pay lip-service to the lofty ideals codified in our founding documents and the inscription on the pedestal of that lady holding the torch in New York. In 2019, reality seems far more intractable. 

I guess we’ll see what Ragtime has to say in 2040.

Ragtime at the Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (888) 455-4212; chancetheater.com. Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. Through Aug. 11. $25-$49. 

Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???

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