Charleston Stage Company
Running through April 28 at 8 p.m.
The Dock Street Theatre, 133 Church St.
577-7183 or charlestonstage.com
The program for Charleston Stage Company’s production of Ragtime lists 42 credited cast members. When all of those actors appear together on the Dock Street stage, as they do several times during the company’s pull-out-all-the-stops season closer, they spill over into the second-story mezzanine. Five musicians are encamped in the pit beneath the stage, and a production crew of 19 holds the whole thing together.
That’s as good a summation as any of director Julian Wiles’ overtly ostentatious adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel. In truth, Wiles’ massive realization is no less than what the show demands. Wrapping its arms around three intertwined narratives and an entire American social and historic era, Ragtime is as close to an epic as anything that’s been created for the stage. Fittingly, Wiles lets no bell or whistle go unsounded in his huge spectacle of a musical. At the end of the show’s full three hours, though, audiences may feel like they sat through a full historic era themselves.
The opening prologue sets the tone for what’s to come: a 10-minute musical introduction of the story’s chief characters, as well as a laundry list of real figures who defined the era, including Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, and Booker T. Washington. The opening also points up the historic scope of the action, ranging across the tide of immigration in the early 1900s, race relations in the new America, the furious pace of global exploration, Vaudeville, the rise of the labor union, and a new kind of music.
Ragtime‘s three main stories are those of a wealthy, whitebread, WASP-ish family in 1906 New Rochelle, N.Y; a just-off-the-boat Latvian Jew named Tateh and his daughter; and a charismatic piano player/baby daddy named Coalhouse Walker. The randy, ragtime-playing Coalhouse swears to win back his lover-on-the-lam, Sarah, who’s grown tired of his philandering. Tateh, a silhouette artist, struggles to feed himself and his daughter while the hard reality of living the American dream beats his hopes and his dignity into the dirt of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Mother,” the sheltered matriarch of the New Rochelle family, frets over her ineffectiveness and chafes at the societal shackles that require it. When Mother takes in Sarah — and her child by Colehouse — the plot’s wheels begin turning and the three narratives begin circling toward one another.
This being a musical, most (but not all) of the narrative is sung. With music director Wendell Smith riding herd over tunes from Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, Ragtime‘s score soars, though at times some songs seem to lag. With few exceptions, the principal actors are fantastically equal to the music, which careers through marches, gospel, Eastern European folk music, symphonic suites, and, of course, lots of ragtime.
With its massive running length, however, it seems self-indulgent that many of Ragtime‘s songs do so little to advance the story, serving merely to evoke the era. “The Crime of the Century,” while great fun, does no more to move the narrative along than “What a Game,” a delightful confection about America’s pastime, or “Henry Ford,” about the brand-new magic of assembly lines and automobiles.
Warnell Berry Jr., Emily Wilhoit, and Randy Risher anchor the show with superb voices and uniformly great acting in their roles as Colehouse, Mother, and Tateh, respectively. Mallory Good runs away with every scene she appears in as Evelyn Nesbit, and John Smalls does right by Booker T. Washington, though we’re thankful he has no more to sing than he does. Andrew Cotlar’s Younger Brother comes off as earnest and idealistic, if a little too light in the loafers. Susie Hallatt, as Emma Goldman, merits a special mention, and Josh Wilhoit, as Houdini, doesn’t have a whole lot to do, but his hairpiece deserves its own dressing room.
Apart from the music, though, no single element of the show is as powerful as Barbara Young’s extraordinary period costumes, which are a crucial part of the production. All three groups have a distinctive look, and the individual outfits are nothing less than remarkable. If Charleston Stage must leave the Dock Street for three years while the place is renovated, at least they’re dressed well for the going-away party.