Last weekend was my last “free” weekend before work began, and I decided to celebrate by traveling to New York City to visit with Shaina, who is there for a summer program, and Amy, of whom I haven’t seen much lately. The impetus for the journey was finding out that the Paper Mill was staging Ragtime, but only for a few more days. Ragtime being one of my favorite shows, if not the favorite, I looked forward to the opportunity to see it again.
It was an excellent production. Broadway-caliber. Others who have seen it noted that the “stripped-down” staging put more emphasis on the characters and removed some of the “ponderousness” of the original production. First let me say that I agree with most of Seth’s short review, namely that several of the actors were superb, and I note his omission of the man who played Coalhouse. His voice bugged me. I also wasn’t fond of the little boy in the sailor suit (as he is referred to in the novel). But I wholeheartedly disagree with Seth’s point in re: the set.
I remembered Ragtime as huge, larger than life. It is a portrait of an era, a time full of wonderful possibilities and terrible oppression. The show is a story told by a little boy, a seer who peers into hidden corners of humanity and reveals our wonders and our failings for all to see. And because it is set in a boy’s imagination, everything is bigger, brighter, and stronger.
Before the curtain rose on the original production, a massive stereopticon floated above the stage. The boy wandered out and the stereopticon flew away, as if we were peering into it, seeing a world in some ways beyond belief. Everything was big: a causeway that lowered to crush the poor and starving immigrants, until master escapist Harry Houdini appeared and held off the forces of the capitalist tycoons J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford with just one finger. A real Model T, driven by Coalhouse Walker, showed both the promise of an unfolding future and, when ripped and broken by the Irish firefighters, the horror of the present. I did not expect the Paper Mill to be able to replicate all of these set pieces, or to be able to stage the marvelous explosion at the beginning of act 2, but I did expect them to try a bit harder. Was the audience supposed to understand that Tateh and the Little Girl were on the back of a train car? Because one of my entourage certainly didn’t. And Evelyn Nesbit, the girl on the swing — come on now, she needed her swing!
Don’t get me wrong, I was glad I went, and I enjoyed the show immensely. But every time I saw them cut a corner, I felt a little pang of grief at something lost. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to see Ragtime performed again with its original staging, sets, and props. And that’s sad. Because it is a really, really good show. And while the hugeness of the production may make the show “ponderous,” I don’t see that as a bad thing. Not bad at all.