Ragtime, A Delightful and Thought Provoking Syncopation In Ogunquit

The Ogunquit Playhouse Through August 26th

reviewed by Bobby Franklin

As the musical Ragtime begins it appears to be a bit overwhelming. The play has a huge cast, and I wondered how I would keep track of all the characters and what was going on. I soon realized that it was like watching a huge chess board with numerous pieces that were constantly in motion. All of these pieces had a purpose that soon became very clear.

Cast of Ragtime
(Photo: Gary Ng)

The story, set in early 20th Century America, revolves around three groups of people, the established old guard, the recent immigrants (Mostly from Eastern Europe), and African Americans. The struggles, pain, hopes, disappointments, coping with change, successes, failures, and tragedies are all captured in this work. And while it takes place over a hundred years ago, many of these struggles are constant in a free society that is continually dealing with changes. It is what makes the United States so great while also so vulnerable to making mistakes.

Ragtime has a truly marvelous score. The fact that so much of it is played with the delightful syncopations of ragtime is fitting. Fitting because the new music of the time represents so many of the changes then occurring. I am not a musician but I felt there was more to the music than just being used as a period piece, so I looked up the definition of syncopation. I found it is a term for “a disturbance or interruption of the regular flow of rhythm” a “placement of rhythmic stresses or accents where they wouldn’t normally occur.”; and that is just what is going on in Ragtime.

This fine production captures so well that interruption of the regular flow in the lives of all involved. Everyone one involved is dealing with change, drastic change. Tateh (Josh Young) the Jewish immigrant from Latvia who has brought his young daughter to America in the hope of giving her a better life, Coalhouse (Darnell Abraham), the African American musician, who has worked hard to make a good life for his family, the unnamed father and mother (Jamie LaVerdiere and Kirsten Scott) who are faced with the “interruption” in their way of living they have known for some time.

For one it turns out well, for another tragic, and for another transformational. It is fascinating, though at times overly predictable, to watch. It is also quite thought provoking because none of the issues addressed are simply black and white. What is to be done when change doesn’t occur fast enough? When justice is not equally applied? Is vengeance ever justified? We hear from Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton), Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst), and Admiral Peary (Joel Robertson).

The discussion between Washington and Coalhouse after a terrible injustice has occurred is very thought provoking. How to deal with such injustice is a question that is not easy to answer.

Josh Young and Ella Luke-Tedeschi (Photo: Gary Ng)

Though dealing with so many serious questions, this is also a lively and funny play. There are appearances by Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel) and the singer Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Ambur), and a wonderful scene at a baseball game that captures the fun of the early game but also shows the difficulty in some being able to accept the changing ethnicities of the players.

The score is superb. It flows smoothly and keeps the story connected. Darnell Abraham’s rendition of Make Them Hear You is particularly powerful not only in its lyrics but because of the deep emotion Abraham brings to it.

As I have said, this play has a huge cast so it is impossible to give credit to all of the excellent performances in the limited space I have. However, I have to mention one member of the cast that not only impressed me but who also had the audience talking about him after the show.

Seven year old Tyler Wladis as The Little Boy was just phenomenal. I have never seen such talent in someone so young. Tyler had a huge part with many lines, both opening and closing the play. His opening monologue set the tone for what was to unfold. His expressions and movements about the stage were just impeccable. This young man has an energy and timing that is truly amazing. He was simply a joy to watch and will surely be seen again.

Ragtime at the Ogunquit Playhouse is an interesting and well done work. It is thought provoking and fun. It will provoke much discussion afterwards. I would just warn you not to take a position of moral superiority when having a conversation about it. Remember, just because someone has views that differ from yours or is not from the same socio economic background does not mean they are evil. I firmly believe that the vast majority of the American people only want better lives for their families and for others. The approaches to the problems facing our society may be different, but if you keep in mind our goals are similar and meant for the better it will maybe, just maybe, make it easier for us to talk to each other.

Ragtime shows us the difficulties in dealing with change, but change will always be occurring as it always has. We can deal with it. Let’s tone down the moral superiority and stop the shouting and lecturing. That is what I have taken away from this wonderful play. It will never be easy, but there s much more kindness than cruelty out there. We just need to listen.

Ragtime Through August 26th
Ogunquit Playhouse, Ogunquit, Maine