Theatre Review: the Shaw Festival’s Ragtime
By Allan Gould
Ragtime (Image: Emily Cooper)
Musicals are an acquired taste; we all know that. The ones that ancient people like myself (I’m now in my late 60s) saw and loved — usually on Broadway, but often listened to on 33-rpm records — became as much a part of our lives in the ’50s as the early sounds of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and The Supremes.
But as one grows older, as the Book of Corinthians so beautifully declares, one tends “to put away childish things,” and so many of those musicals of the mid-century seem dated and shallow now, if still lovely.
Then, along came Ragtime in the mid-’90s, based on an exquisite, profound and daring novel by the superlative American novelist E.L. Doctorow. With its magnificent script by Terrence McNally, striking lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and astonishingly memorable music by Stephen Flaherty, Ragtime raised the historical and intellectual level of musicals to new heights.
The history of the production of Ragtime is fascinating, and it has deep Canadian roots (Garth Drabinsky, of the now-bankrupt Livent production company, was the main force behind the musical, which was developed and molded in Toronto, then taken to Broadway, where it won several much-deserved Tony Awards before vanishing too soon).
Kudos must go to the Shaw Festival and its gifted Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell — who also directs the present production of the musical — because this version of Ragtime is, in several surprising ways, more successful than its earlier Toronto and New York incarnations.
I lack the space here to rave sufficiently about Ragtime and the intricate, clever ways it brings together real characters (Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford) and real events and ties them all together in an exquisite musical ribbon of ragtime.
I have seen this show a half-dozen times, and loved it deeply, becoming obsessed with it; and I must state flatly here that there has never been a better Tateh than Jay Turvey, long one of my favourite actors and singers at the Shaw.
No, it’s not perfect: in the original production, when a group of white racists smashes the car of “an uppity Negro,” hero Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (played here by the wonderful Thom Allison) the car is quite literally smashed and nearly destroyed; it is heartbreaking, and symbolic of how African Americans would be treated for over half of the 20th century. Here, the car is treated like giant Lego, and delicately taken apart — a big mistake. But this is truly one of the great musicals of the last century, right up there with Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Into the Woods, Follies and Sweeney Todd.
I beg you: see Ragtime at the Shaw Festival. It is worth its own 90-minute drive from Toronto. You’ve got until Oct. 14, and I promise you, you’ll thank me. Of course, Niagara-on-the-Lake, being one of the prettiest towns in Canada, is a nice piece of fudge on top. Please go.
Ragtime, Shaw Festival Theatre. Runs until Oct. 14
Allan Gould is Post City Magazines’ theatre critic. He has a Ph.D. in English and theatre from York University and has written over 40 books. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Chatelaine, en Route, Canadian Business, Good Times and the Financial Post. He is married, with two children. Aside from his family, his major passions are theatre and film, because they enrich life with pleasure and meaning.