By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
It’s a fine time for Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of Ragtime, the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty/Terrence McNally musical adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel (followed by Milos Forman’s 1981 film). The show premiered in 1996, saw a Broadway revival in 2009, and takes place in the years between the turn of the 20th century and the start of WWI. Why so many dates? Just to make the point that though is a turn-of-the-20th-century American story, it remains just as relevant at the turn of the 21st.
Immigrants arrive with strange accents, ratty clothes and a coin or two in their pockets hoping to realize their American dreams (here, they’re a Jewish father and daughter coming from Eastern Europe on a “rag ship”). The descendants of former immigrants (a WASP family from New Rochelle) bemoan declining standards of civility and learn to accept their changing position in the U.S. cultural hierarchy. There’s always racism, and police brutality plagues the African American community: musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Derrick Cobey) is driven to terroristic acts after a group of firefighter thugs destroy his brand new Model T, and his beloved, Sarah (Ciji Prosser), is accidentally killed by cops.
As choreographed by Stephen Casey during the show’s soaring, eponymous opening number, the three groups circle each other warily. By the end, their paths will all intersect. Meanwhile, celebrities find scandals. The rich get richer. Workers struggle and fight back. Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington and others all pop in and out to comment on the proceedings.
With over 30 cast members and an 11-piece orchestra, this is a major undertaking for the company. Jason Simms’ stripped-down set, a pair of movable stairs and platforms adorned with curving brass rails, provides much-needed room and a dash of period style. However, Keith Baker’s direction seems overly ambitious, cluttered, and slightly under-rehearsed, with a wide range of ability represented onstage. Casey’s choreography also suffers from disorganized moves which aren’t always performed in unison (though they’re supposed to be).
The good news is Derrick Cobey’s Coalhouse and Ciji Prosser’s Sarah, both performers who can sing out and stir hearts. Cobey originated the role of The Scottsboro Boys’ Andy Wright, which comes in handy here. In many ways, and through the same themes, Ragtime (which, while it has some lovely songs, doesn’t include nearly enough of the music in its title) plays like an easier, lighter variation on what Kander and Ebb attacked head on and harder. But Cobey brings much-needed intensity to the production, and helps make it matter, both for the audience and for Bristol.