The characters in Ragtime include Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Booker T. Washington. The setting is New Rochelle, New York, not long after the end of slavery. The scenery, in 5th Avenue Theatre's stirring and brutal new production, is minimal—a string of lights, or a line of laundry, or a clock might be the only thing onstage. There are also two rolling platform ladders that serve variously as stairs or bleachers, and a piano that does double duty as a car. It almost looks as if the show is being thrown together on the spot with whatever materials are on hand—as improvised and unlikely as the country itself.
If you care about our country's history, or our country's present day, or injustice, or music, or theater, and you haven't seen Ragtime, you should go. But you are warned. A sign as you walk in says: "Warning: Adult language, racial epithets, sexual references, an instance of stage violence, on- and off-stage gunshots."
Though the musical begins with a bunch of celebrity cameos (Hugh Hastings as the jovially self-satisfied Henry Ford, Eric Ankrim as the beguilingly weird Harry Houdini), there is something slightly goofy about these characters. They are given so little to do, they never quite transcend their costumes. But the fictional characters, whose fears and fates are interwoven with theirs, and who were originally created by novelist E.L. Doctorow, are profound creations, some of them impossible to forget.
Director Peter Rothstein makes brilliant use of a recurring motif—silhouettes of people's bodies, shadowy forms brightly lit from behind—referencing them in nearly every element of the performance, from the props to the narrative to the actors themselves. (The grief-stricken staging of the end of act one, with all the characters lined up, results in absolute silence from the audience, a segue into intermission I've never experienced before.) Likewise, Stephen Flaherty's catchy musical motifs recur in seemingly infinite variation, taking on minor-chord strangeness as the story descends into darkness.
Fine performances by Joshua Carter, Kendra Kassebaum, and Louis Hobson ground the show. But it is Danyel Fulton who kicks the complexity and emotional power of the proceedings up a notch when she comes out halfway through act one to sing "Your Daddy's Son," by herself, near the edge of the stage. She is a stunning, gifted, subtle actor making her 5th Avenue debut as Sarah, the warmhearted but wary love interest of a piano player named Coalhouse Walker Jr. And she has undeniable chemistry with Douglas Lyons, a strong performer and powerhouse singer also making his 5th Avenue debut as Coalhouse. Whenever they are onstage together, no one else matters. Three times in the course of the show, the presence of them onstage together had me in tears.
Ragtime is not a celebration of celebrity, it turns out, but a shadowy meditation on the human heart and the tortures inflicted on it by a country supposedly dedicated to life and liberty. It's also a show about rage, and the fantasy of superiority embedded in the hearts of white supremacists. It's also a critique of the presumption of celebrity (Booker T. Washington is trying his best, but he is rather unhelpful when the time comes). And it's a show about family, fortitude, love, and hope.