In Canada, the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the birth of Ragtime is probably better known than the story of Gilded Age America that the show tells.
This is the Broadway megamusical – originally staged with pyrotechnics and a working Model T Ford – that was created in Toronto at Garth Drabinsky's Livent and then was front and centre as that commercial theatre company's financial house of cards collapsed.
In recent years, in New Jersey, Washington and on Broadway, directors have been taking a second look at Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens's adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1974 novel – about WASP, African-American and Jewish immigrant families whose lives intertwine at the beginning of the 20th century – and trying out less lavish productions of the show to see what lies underneath the hype.
Following in their footsteps, a stripped down, all-Canadian version – Ontario's first genuine Maple Leaf Ragtime – has opened at the Shaw Festival, a short drive in your Model T from the musical's birthplace (unless you leave at rush hour).
Jackie Maxwell's ambitious production is an impressive pageant about America, both the place and the idea. Despite a set that consists largely of cast-iron catwalks and projected images, it fills the Festival Theatre's stage in a way few Shaw show have of late.
Maxwell's staging – crisp and clear and well-acted – allows an unobstructed view of the material. What is revealed, alas, is a show somehow both sentimental and aloof that throughout strains a little too hard to be considered the Great American Musical.
Ragtime introduces us to a white, well-to-do family headed by adventurer Father (Benedict Campbell) and frustrated housewife Mother (Patty Jamieson), as well as a Jewish widower named Tateh (Jay Turvey) who immigrates from Latvia with his daughter to pursue the American Dream.
The heart and soul of the show, however, belongs to a successful African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Thom Allison) and his baby's mother, Sarah (Alana Hibbert). The couple's desire to rise up through "industry, thrift, intelligence and property" – as Booker T. Washington had advised – hits a roadblock after Walker's beloved Model T is vandalized by a group of racist volunteer firemen and he is unable to find justice.
Allison, making a triumphant return from New York where he'd been playing a dancing cupcake in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, paints a strong, proud portrait of Coalhouse; his inherent likeability makes the character's dark turn into vigilantism terribly seductive. What thrills, however, is his smooth, rich voice – a tenor that sounds like a baritone – turned to some of Flaherty's best anthems, such as Wheels of A Dream.
At his side, Hibbert's Sarah is acted with conviction, though her voice is a tad thin and wispy; the numbers she should belt sound corseted.
Watching it 12 years into a 21st century that has proved to have an equally tumultuous beginning as the 20th, Ragtime's romantic portrayal of domestic terrorism and simplistic attempt to explain what we now call its "root causes" comes across as out-of-tune, however.
Indeed, despite its colourful parade of turn-of-the-century figures – Kelly Wong is suitably magical as escape artists Houdini, while Kate Hennig is a perfect mix of fire and irony as anarchist Emma Goldman – the show's series of tableaux tell us very little about early 20th century or our own times. The musical is yet another slice of history viewed through the prism of the 1960s – Coalhouse a kind of proto-Black Panther, while Mother, who has no name, seems to be suffering from Betty Friedan's "problem that has no name."
The allegorical nature of the non-black characters gives the show a white-gaze feel, even as it makes the white characters seem underdeveloped. As Mother's Younger Brother, Evan Alexander Smith's turn towards anarchism certainly seems to go nowhere. Meanwhile, Tateh's part of the tale comes across as a cartoon – though, perhaps that has to do with Turvey's lightweight stage presence.
Jaimeson does find a poignant struggle within Mother, however, while Campbell's lost Father connects in his confusion. It's a pity his storyline is ended in such a cruel and convenient way.
Ultimately, however, it's only the doomed romance of Coalhouse and Sarah that really is done justice in this show about injustice that seems less syncopated than scattershot.
- Book by Terrence McNally
- Music by Stephen Flaherty
- Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
- Directed by Jackie Maxwell
- Starring Thom Allison, Patty Jamieson and Jay Turvey
- At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake
- 3 stars