The musical classic whirls its way into the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.

Photo by Brad Austin

The musical style known as ragtime swept the nation, rolling over performers, composers and audiences with an infectious syncopated beat that took over piano halls and Main Street parlor’s during the early 1900s. With roving composers and musicians such as Scott Joplin, ragtime became a calling card as well. In many ways, ragtime created the beat upon which social change moved to … And the music is clearly part of the musical, Ragtime, based on author E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre will present the musical May 29 to June 16.

The musical, with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty includes marches, cakewalks, gospel and ragtime. The story depicts three groups: the affluent whites, Eastern European immigrants and African Americans.

For Robert Gibby Brand, Tateh, the familiar name for father in Yiddish, is a character designed for empathy. With his daughter, Little Girl (unnamed), the audience sees a gentle character determined to give his daughter all he can. “I have a daughter myself to I can connect easily to Tateh,” Brand says. “Just imagine, all that he has is his daughter so he is tied to her. I strongly identify with him so it could be a challenge to rein in my emotions playing him.” Tateh’s journey brings him across Mother’s path and on to Hollywood.

Karen Paisley, founder of the MET, plays another pivotal role as Mother. She sees the lack of names as a way to clearly identify her role. “It’s pretty intentional and in a way, archetypical, when you are presented with Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the Little Boy, I think of a certain societal circle or that gated community.”

Charles Fugate takes on the elegance and role of Father, the patriarch of the white upper-class family in New Rochelle, N.Y. While the audience never learns his character’s first name, Fugate puts Father into a different perspective than others might. “We all have a mom and dad or someone who bears that sort of moniker,” he says. “By calling the characters Mother and Father, there is immediacy to the
roles and personally, I see the audience building a more intimate relationship.”

Both Paisley and Fugate believe their characters respond fairly well to social justice with Mother leading this charge. “When Mother is presented with finding Sarah’s baby and then taking both in, it’s a little like a birth for Mother; she is like Athena, fully armored and ready for battle. She’s pragmatic and caring. She’s kind and romantic. She reaches out and holds on to Sarah and her baby. Really her actions throw a lot into motion, but her power is something really special. She essentially becomes a working mother and foreshadows the women who worked in munitions during World War II. I think she’d make a good friend.”

Fugate says Father represents that affluent male his time. “He has those qualities of leader of the family that was very traditional during the late 19th century and early 20th century. He thinks his wife will comply, but when she doesn’t, he has to confront this changing world.”

Fugate sees Father as a good man who is torn by what is happening in the world around him, but also strong in his support of his wife. As for the end of this rich tapestry of the American life of the early 1900s, the audience will leave humming tunes such as Sarah’s duet with Coalhouse, Wheels of a Dream or Mother and Tateh’s duet, Nothing Like the City. “Every established generation thinks the generation behind them is going to hell in a hand basket, but rather than seeing people in categories, groups or races, Ragtime gives us all a chance to see people for who they are. It’s a touching musical that takes aim at real hearts and minds,” Fugate says.

Justin McCoy plays Coalhouse Walker Jr. It’s a role that he may have been destined to play. McCoy not only sings, but he has played piano since he was 4 and the role seemingly works better when the actor can genuinely play a little ragtime too. “I understand Coalhouse,” he says. “I understand him as a musician. I can appreciate him as a man who is seeking love.” He is also a professional organist and sings opera with the Lyric Opera chorus.

McCoy says Coalhouse, during the setting of the early 1900s, represents a rare African-American who has education, freedoms and resources. He even owned his own car. Brand says Coalhouse may even represent how the world unravels. “I think she sees Father and kind and noble and really everyone in her world should be noble, but then she finds out people are human,” Paisley says. “The other change that becomes apparent to Mother and Father is how spouses change over time.”

There is also a movie based on Doctorow’s novel, which McCoy watched. He is immersed in the script and enjoys the historical figures that interact with the fictional characters.Coalhouse has a heated discussion with Civil Rights leader Booker T. Washington who advocated a “go slow” approach to avoid a harsh white backlash.

“I get Coalhouse’s passion, but his extreme anger is difficult for me,” McCoy says. “With Booker, the audience gets another taste of the social movements going on at the time. The tragedy is that doing what is right with a violent bent will most likely end poorly. So often, we stand beside and behind social media when we should be encouraged to speak out. Of course, I am sure hoping a few people fall in love with ragtime music.”

McCoy’s onstage love, Teal Holliday, plays Sarah, a strong spirit who stumbles, but seeks out what is right. “I’ve been obsessed with this show for years. I knew I wanted to be Sarah, but personally the skills I am learning is to have that more reserved inner strength, but not necessarily being timid. Like Coalhouse, Sarah wants to be loved and to love. So I do think most of us will relate to them. I want an audience to feel moved as they watch what the characters are going through.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that her idol, Audra McDonald, won a Tony for the role. “I am working so hard to be Sarah.” Ironically, McCoy wasn’t sure he would audition until vocal director Ben Gulley called him.

Jordan Haas, 11, is a young actor in town. His role as the Little Boy puts him front and center. The musical is basically told through his eyes. “My character is that role that sort of knows the future and tells the audience. My mom and I have been researching what boys my age did in 1906. It’s pretty cool.”

The other child in the show is Megan Walstrom, 12. She plays the young daughter of Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. Her voice teacher has been working with her on the Russian accent. “We are flying to Atlanta to see a production so I can be better acquainted with the musical. No matter what, I am excited to take on the challenge of this show.”

Some of the historic figures laced through the musical include escape artist and magician Harry Houdini, industrialist J.P. Morgan, automobile designer Henry Ford, Civil Rights activist Booker T. Washington and anarchist Emma Goldman.

Ragtime was both exciting and threatening to America’s youth and staid polite society, respectively. The excitement came from syncopation–the displacing of the beat from its regular and assumed course of meter. Syncopation caused an individual to feel a propulsion, swing, and if played correctly, a musical looseness generally unknown to the public at large. Jeremy Watson, musical director, will be referencing many musical styles. “The challenge is to make sure we have the right instruments in the pit such as banjo and harmonica. It’s also a daring and demanding score. It’s a large ensemble of 32 that covers a lot of material and story. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but if we do it right, it’s like witnessing magic. I saw in on Broadway and had to have the musical right away.”

For Paisley, who enjoys ending the MET season with a musical, calls Ragtime “a story that you will show the multiple layers of community and just how often those layers overlap. No man or woman really can be an island.”

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

Leave a Reply