Music Theater Works’ “Ragtime,” a multi-award-winning musical with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, is a powerful, riveting production that perfectly meshes with our current age of anxiety.
Based on E. L. Doctorow’s novel on the pervasive value systems and prejudices toward immigrants, blacks, class structure and women’s “place” in the early 1900’s, the musical follows the interaction of three disparate “family” groupings.
Now at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, “Ragtime” unfortunately closes Nov. 7, 2021. Music Theater Works productions historically ran for just a couple of weeks when housed at Cahn Auditorium on Northwestern’s Evanston Campus. Maybe it’s wistful thinking about budget and date conflicts to hope the venue change would allow longer runs.
Audiences can enjoy the musical ‘Ragtime’ with its book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty without knowing where its theme and main rhythm were born. The tales are compelling as are the show’s superb voices.
But knowledge of the times portrayed from the early 1900s to 1917, a time rife with prejudice and important movements for women’s rights and better labor conditions, is helpful to appreciating the messages of the musical’s origin, novelist E.L. Doctorow’s famed 1975 novel, Ragtime.
It is appropriately named after the syncopated “rags” music popular with African Americans in the 1890s up to the First World War.
When translated into the musical, first appearing in Toronto in 1996 and opened on Broadway in 1998, the prominent background and piece tinkled on the keys by Doctorow’s character, Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., was “Maple Leaf Rag.”
Written by African American composer Scott Joplin, the piece became the “face” of a sound arguably first written by another African American composer, Ernest Hogan, who called his pieces “rags.”
Doctorow’s novel, and later a film and the musical, follows the fictional fortunes of a wealthy white suburban New York family, an African American couple and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. They served as a way to zoom in on prejudices against Negros, the term used at the time, and bigotry towards immigrants.
The tales are intermingled with actual historical figures such as Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Standford White, Harry Kendall Thaw and Admiral Peary.
You know the period is the early 1900s by the terrific costumes designed by Sarah Laux and by the story’s historical figures. However, similar to the many Shakespearean plays now set in other years, ‘Ragtime’ could be moved to now, more than a century later, and still have a similar impact.
The joy of seeing the Marriott show is listening to Kathy Voytko as Mother, the wealthy, caring mom in New Rochelle, and Katherine Thomas as Sarah, Coalhouse Walker, Jr.’s abandoned lover whom he wants to reclaim.
It is also the excellent acting of Nathaniel Stampley as Coalhouse and Benjamin Magnuson as Tateh, a Jewish artist immigrant.
Indeed, directed by Nick Bowling, the entire cast, a large one at 29 players, is excellent.
However special kudos go to Patrick Scott McDermott as Mother’s The Little Boy who has a fairly large role innocently reflecting the thoughts and terms he hear, and Paula Hlava as Tateh’s daughter, The Little Girl who heightens the plight of immigrant’s conditions.
The only problem I had with the production was that at 2 hours, 40 minutes, it became too long to appreciate all the fine singing and dancing.
DETAILS: ‘Ragtime- the Musical” is at Marriott Theatre , 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, now through March 18, 2018. Running time 2 hours, 40 minutes with one 15 minute intermission. For tickets and other information call (847) 634-0200 and visit Marriott Theatre.
Note: Ragtime contains strong language and content relating to race. It is recommended for ages 13 and older.
There is nothing ragged about this Griffin Theatre version of Tony Award-winning ‘RAGTIME.’
Re-imagined by Director Scott Weinstein, the 1996 musical with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, has new orchestrations by Matt Deitchman and is perfectly scaled to the intimate Den Theatre stage.
A tight ensemble follows the adventures of three groups of individuals from various cultural and socio-economic strata at the turn of the 20th century by using the new music of the era – Ragtime. It has become the soundtrack of the age.
The new sound’s syncopation punctuates the changing rhythms of the increasingly fast-paced times that introduced industrialization along with such social challenges that defined pre-WWI America as European immigration, urban racial integration, unionization and women’s independence.
Taken from E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the musical throws together African American domestic worker Sarah (Katherine Thomas), her baby and the baby’s piano playing daddy, “Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang), into the household of an upper middle class, white suburban (New Rochelle) family
“Father” (Scott Allen Luke) is a fireworks manufacturer and part-time world explorer who leaves his wife to manage the business. In the process she finds opportunities to explore her own independence.
This brings “Mother” (Laura McLain) into contact with “Teteh,” a recent Jewish immigrant (enthusiastically played by Jason Richards), and his pre-teen daughter (Autumn Hilava) who recently arrived in New York seeking the American dream.
“Little Boy” (Ben Miller) opens the play by introducing the characters to the title tune “Ragtime.” “The Little Boy” weaves among the characters throughout the rest of the production and is on some level the thread that pulls them together and toward one another.
The “Family” household additionally includes “Grandfather” (Larry Baldacci who also appears as industrialist J.P. Morgan). He just wants some quiet.
Then there is “Mother’s Younger Brother” (Matt Edmonds). He finds meaning in his life by embracing the plight of the underclass “Negroes” and mistreated workers.
There are appearances by historical notables Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and “Specialty Entertainer/Celebrity” Evelyn Nesbit (Caitlain Collins), who provides periodic comic relief. Their vignettes supply political and social context of the time that drives the action.
Every character has a musical opportunity to shine resulting in a production with many glittering gems that come together like a charm bracelet; each with an individual tale commemorating a specific experience but in the end working together to tell the story of one grand shared adventure.
The entire cast is comprised of excellent singers. Laura McClain gave us everything she had in “Back to Before.” Katherine Thomas was a joy every moment she sang including “Your Daddy’s Son” and the show stopper duet “Wheels of Dream” with Denzel Tsopnang.
Pianists Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris with Clarinet Dan Hickey perform in costume onstage providing outstanding accompaniments in a production where the music virtually never ends.
Details RAGTIME is at the Den Theatre at 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, now through July 16, 2017. For tickets and other information visit Griffin Theatre or call (866) 811-4111.