Ford’s has given us a magnificent and deeply moving musical about where we’ve come from, featuring, as its main character, America. The superbly attuned ensemble announces with full emotional authority that the stakes are high to resolve who we are as a people. As the character Coalhouse Walker Jr. and then the whole ensemble sing, we must hold up our banner and roll on “on the wheels of a dream.”
There is something especially powerful, even sacred, to experience the work in the theatre where the ghost of Abraham Lincoln is surely gazing down from his box with us.
Ragtime is based on E.L. Doctorow’s powerful book about immigrants and the fight for the American soul in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Written forty-two years ago, the story’s perspective seems spot-on relevant. Its issues of race, class, gender equality, and political clashing are very alive today, and the challenge to change and work together to create a more just and equitable society is still America’s ongoing experiment.
In Washington, Terrence McNally rules! This past month I have seen two superb staged productions that have held the mirror up to American society – Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking and now Ragtime – and both libretto and book are by McNally. The contemporaneity of his chosen themes in such charged times makes for a theatrical experience that fairly crackles with excitement.
Before the start of Ford’s show, performers prepare themselves on stage, signaling this will be a shared story-telling event. (They will do yeoman’s work in the show’s two hours and forty-five minutes, changing characters and costumes multiple times, moving scenery, and serving as both background characters and witnesses to the scenes.)
There is an enormous three-story scaffold upstage, holding, on its second floor and in full view, a nine-person orchestra, including its superb leader Christopher Youstra featured as conductor, and on keyboards, and accordion. This tiered event, terrifically conceived by Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce de León, serves to depict in fluid fashion, aided by the masterful projections by Clint Allen, tenements in New York, a balustrade at a graceful home in New Rochelle, a ship on its way to the North Pole, a turn-of-the-century New Jersey beach resort, and a symbolic economic pyramid introducing characters by economic class and social status.
The first number is a marvel of musical invention. Starting with Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Kevin McAllister) at the piano tinkling the keys, characters introduce themselves in song until it builds into a twenty-four part number setting time and place and identifying familiar historical characters featured in the work: Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington, Stanford White, Henry Ford, and at the top-of-the-food-chain, banker J.P. Morgan.
Rui Rita’s lights capture exquisitely the memory of a softer, gentler world (for some!) as they bathe the white patriarch’s family of Father (James Konicek,) Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera,) and Younger Brother (Gregory Maheu) in a golden glow. Their story about how such privileged folk needed an awakening to change is traced throughout the show. To the audience’s rueful merriment, the narrators sang of this era, “There were no negroes. There were no immigrants.”
As J.P. Morgan tells it, from the set’s top tier, this was an America where “all men are born equal, but the cream must rise to the top.” And if there were any question to that, the media was always there to distract us with juicy gossip and celebrity entertainment by the likes of the Evelyn Nesbit (Justine “Icy” Moral,) a delightful girl on the velvet swing (“Whoopee!”) and magician-contortionist Houdini (Christopher Mueller.)
There’s a duet of farewell between Father and Mother, where Olivera delivers a touching send-off to her husband, “Goodbye, My Love” who is going off to the North Pole with Admiral Perry.
Metal staircases to the major structure swing apart and then are rolled past each other, ships passing in the night. The one ship delivers immigrants, lots of them. The din grows as contrasting melodies in multiple languages are sung. “Journey On,” sing Father, Mother and a newly arrived Latvian Immigrant Tateh, and for each of them it means so different a thing.
Michael Bobbitt’s choreography has never been so gorgeously integrated into the story telling, and the dancer-singer-actors are terrific not only in their technical prowess but in their delivery of distinct cultural styles of expression.
And that’s just the first scene where three numbers melt seamlessly one into another.
Jonathan Atkinson plays Tateh, a convincing portrayal of the highs and lows of a fresh immigrant. Through the course of the evening, Atkinson makes us feel for him when his American dream of opportunity fades then finally gets reinvented. His character moves between cocky humor to fear and despair and then he returns, a self-made man full of hope, generosity, and even self-deprecation. Lyricist Lynn Ahrens, whose words speak for all who make up America, seems to have had a special affinity for Tateh.
The scenes change as fast as cinematic cuts. Up in Harlem at The Tempo Club where friends gather to appreciate music, dance, and help each other get through, Coalhouse is the man they come to hear. The room lights up when he gives them the “Getting’ Ready Rag.” Can anyone doubt listening to his rag and watching these dancers explode in exuberant response to the music that our country is uniquely built on the rhythms and cultural richness of African-Americans?
The music shifts to help pull through another thread of the story in the tapestry as a ragtime tune pushes into metal banging on metal, and suddenly we’re transported to a factory assembly line. That would be Mr. Henry Ford’s factory. It’s music is America’s favorite sound, it would seem, ka-ching, ka-ching.
I for one love how this musical doesn’t follow just one person’s narrative and how so many characters get their chance in the sun. Director Peter Flynn has made the complicated and layered story crystal clear and has helped the characters to be differentiated, while Music Director Youstra has created a beautiful blended sound – ah, that’s America! Together they have wrought a gorgeous and moving ensemble. Every scene is so fleshed out and truthful, that, even knowing the story, I got lost as if I were watching a forever “now” moment only to be taken by surprise by what happened in the next scene.
Above all, the show is an ensemble endeavor. However, there are certain standout moments and performances. McAllister’s rich baritone is the real deal, and his performance alone is worth the price of this show. He crafts every line of every song, massaging and drawing out gorgeous interpretations from Stephen Flaherty’s musical compositions. His jovial confidence and dignity gives way to serious courtship of Sarah and then his deep pride and responsibility suddenly seeing his son. By the time he and Nova Y. Payton as the mother of his son sing “The Wheels of a Dream,” I’m in tears.
The show then turns to darkness, anger and sorrow, but McAllister’s performance never waivers, and his emotional truth is searing.
Tracy Lynn Olivera has become one of Washington’s top singer-actresses. She is splendid here. By the time she delivers “Back to Before,” I thought people might erupt out of their seats in a standing ovation. Her voice is placed well in every register and true, and her acting draws us in by her honesty.
Rayanne Gonzales makes a strong impression with her fiery Emma Goldman. Jefferson A. Russell as Booker T. Washington exudes dignity and righteousness and is on stage too little. Henry Baratz is a smart and appealing young actor and gets some of the best lines in the show.
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closes May 20, 2017
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Gregory Maheu has one of the longest arcs in the play from a feckless goon fawning after Evelyn Nesbit to one who is incited to take a stand against injustice and prejudice. James Konicek as Father embraces his role of least honorable character (patronizing husband, absent father, and passive racist as he is) and yet he makes us listen to his fears and his confounding astonishment at the world changing around him, and ultimately we feel for him. Felicia Curry demonstrates she’s a dynamite dancer but also leads a deeply moving song of grief at another black life lost at the end of the first act.
Yes, the work confronts some dark sides of our American character including abuse of women and racist-driven violence. These actors surely take us into the shame, rage, and deep sorrow as we confront these issues anew.
But there is nothing turgidly polemic about the show. One of my favorite scenes was the baseball game, where the same characters, seemingly who wanted to shun and even kill the others, were sitting on bleachers up against each other, singing, jawing and spitting in true manly bonding. The humor was a welcome respite. There is also a highly choreographed number in the silly swim costumes of the period which is as riotously funny as Les Ballets Trocadero.
The joy of this show is how beautifully it moved and how the ensemble worked together to deliver every moment.
What does it say about us artists that sometimes our best work comes when we are confronted with our biggest and most severe challenges? And what should we do? I believed the Ragtime performers have taken to heart with every fiber of their being the last number, “Make them hear you.”
Ragtime. Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the Novel Ragtime by E.L Doctorow. Directed by Peter Flynn. Music Direction by Christopher Youstra. Orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg. Choreography by Michael Bobbitt. Scenic Design by Milagros Ponce de León. Costume Design by Wade Laboissonniere. Lighting Design Rui Rita. Sound Design by David Budries. Projection Design by Clint Allen. Hair and Make-Up Design by Anne Nesmith, Fight Direction by Casey Kaleba. Produced by Ford’s Theatre Society. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.