NEWSDAY: Ragtime’ concert at Ellis Island with Brian Stokes Mitchell
Here’s something fascinating that you won’t be able to see this week. On Monday, Aug. 8, a remarkable company of actors and musicians will gather on Ellis Island for a one-time-only concert of songs and stories from “Ragtime,” the Tony-winning 1998 Broadway musical about immigrants and others in early 20th century America.
You won’t be able to see it unless you are part of a select invited audience of industry people, which I’m assuming most of us are not.
Why, you may well ask, am I bothering you about a private event, even one starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, the original Coalhouse Walker Jr., as narrator? The answer: Maybe this intriguing notion could morph into an immersive full-length musical next summer. That, too, would be on Ellis Island, the ancestor-soaked portal through which more than 12 million newcomers passed between 1892 and 1954. According to Sammi Cannold, the 22-year-old director and co-producer of the site-specific experiment, the journey might even begin on the ferry from Manhattan to the island. Think of the possibilities.
“Ragtime,” with a book by Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, weaves its three overlapping stories from E.L. Doctorow’s wonderfully rich 1975 rag rug of a novel. It has WASPS from New Rochelle, upwardly mobile blacks from Harlem, Jews from Eastern Europe, racism, real-life radicals, industrialists, daredevils, celebrities and syncopated chords that, in Doctorow’s words, hang in the air “like flowers.”
The intersection and happenstance begin in view of Ellis Island. As the businessman called Father leaves on a voyage, his ship passes another father, a poor Latvian called Tateh, approaching America with his little girl. There are 22 scenes leading to World War I, but that sense of new people embarking on unknown, promising, ominous and tragic new worlds is never far from the center.
The concert will have just 12 of the show’s dozens of songs and will boast a cast that includes Laura Michelle Kelly (“Finding Neverland”) as Mother; Georgia Engel as Houdini’s mother; Robert Petkoff, who played Tateh in the 2009 revival, plus many actors from the Broadway original, including Mitchell’s wife, Allyson Tucker. Brandon Victor Dixon, the new Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” will play Coalhouse Walker. Both Dixon and Mitchell were co-stars in “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed,” which closed last month after a distressingly short run on Broadway.
For Mitchell, it is hard to imagine a better place for “Ragtime” to be performed. “It’s about immigrations, disparate groups making this country so incredible and challenging and toxic and inventive,” he told me in a recent phone interview. Despite being in nine other Broadway shows, he added, “Ragtime” remains “the most magical show I’ve ever done . . . And what could be more timely? Stories of racism, sexism, struggles about immigrants and religion are still the stories of today.”
His participation, according to Cannold, is “such a beautiful confluence. He has this amazing relationship to the material.” She and her collaborators chose the 12-song structure because “we didn’t want to truncate the show. So we needed somebody to connect the material, to guide the audience.” Mitchell will also share his own stories, including those about his great-great grandmother’s arrival through Ellis Island from Germany. He said the show “will always be a part of me.”
The story of this incarnation has its own surprising theatricality. Cannold studied theater at Stanford. As a sophomore, she was involved in a production of “Violet” — Jeanine Tesori’s musical about a disfigured woman on a fateful bus ride — staged on a bus. “That turned me onto site-specific theater,” Cannold said. “I fell in love with the art form.”
After graduation, she made a list of “every musical I love that could possibly be done on an interesting or authentic site. ‘Ragtime’ was at the top of the list.” The idea of renting Ellis Island turned out to be less absurd than one might think. She called the National Park Service. “I thought they’d think I was nuts,” she said, “but they asked if I wanted to fill out an application. ‘Excuse me? There’s an application?’ ” She applied and “after a long process,” got permission from the various entities involved.
Cannold was too young to see the original “Ragtime,” but she did see the revival and, as she puts it, “every version at the New York Public Library.” She wanted right away to do the whole show, thinking “Let’s just do it.” But her mentor, the fabulously inventive environmental director Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”), talked her down. “She told me to slow down,” Cannold remembered, “Just do a step.”
So this is the step, for select eyes only, but hardly a baby step. Mitchell — who plays the scarily confident new Chief Technology Officer of E Corp on the cable series “Mr. Robot” — looks forward to taking his son, 12, on his first trip to Ellis Island. And what about next summer? “I’m just in for this one-off,” he said, “And we’ll see what happens. . . . It’s experimental, like our country.”
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