Terrence McNally is perhaps the most uneven playwright working on Broadway today. In this case, his book has a connect-the-dots structure that is filled with ham-handed speeches and unconvincing plot points. And surprising for a show of this importance, the dialogue contains little original wit.
The musical performances nearly overcome deficiencies in the book. At the center of the story, Ruan Woolfolk plays Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black ragtime pianist sympathetic to the pragmatic pronouncements of Booker T. Washington. He winningly courts Sarah (Brenda D. Parker), the mother of his child. Parker and Woolfolk’s duets are the most touching parts of the show.
Coalhouse is soon transformed by an act of horrifying injustice. In his subsequent songs, Woolfolk accomplishes what McNally cannot: He creates a three dimensional character. With startling clarity, we hear Coalhouse’s desire for racial accommodation harden into an appetite for vengeance against the white power structure.
Director-choreographer Leslie Owens-Harrington deftly maneuvers around many of the potholes in the script. Like her choreography in Barksdale’s current show, “Annie, Get Your Gun,” Owens-Harrington creates a Broadway look and feel without resorting to hackneyed tricks.
Alan Williamson’s set is a simple but robust evocation of The Gilded Age. It includes suggestions of the big machines that will drive societal change in the coming century. Thomas W. Hammond’s excellent period costumes are awash in purples, pinks, greens and blues.
Though “Ragtime” is certainly a spectacle, it is more likely to engage your intellect than your heart. It’s much like reading an article about injustice on the front page of a newspaper. Though a story about total strangers may outrage us, the emotional impact often dissipates by the time we reach the funny pages. In 50 years or so, a script doctor will likely refurbish the book, eliminate unessential characters (including historical figures such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Houdini), and craft a more nuanced, heartfelt story worthy of the novel, music, and epic subject matter. Until then, we’re fortunate to have a production that gets every last mile out of the script. — Jerrell Nickerson
“Ragtime” continues through Aug. 9 at Dogwood Dell. Admission is free.
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