At the Marriott Theatre
by Dan Zeff
Lincolnshire– “Ragtime” is the “Les Miserables” of the American musical theater. Like that French classic, “Ragtime” attempts a panoramic account of life during a broad historical period. “Ragtime” focuses on the time in the Eastern United States from roughly the turn of the last century to the start of World War I. It has vivid central characters and a rich display of complementary secondary figures who fill in the background. The result is great storytelling that is invigorating history–funny, informative, romantic, tragic, and uplifting.
The musical is based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 best selling novel. It has been masterfully adapted for the stage by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), opening on Broadway in 1998 and now receiving a superlative revival at the Marriott Theatre under the resourceful guidance of guest director Nick Bowling.
Bowling has made a virtue of necessity in accommodating the sprawling story (dozens of characters portrayed by almost 30 performers at Marriott) into the theater’s compact in-the-round stage. Bowling orchestrates his ensemble into vivid dramatic groups, judiciously using the aisles to extend the playing area. The scenes flow seamlessly as the action goes from one interior or exterior setting to another with no wasted motion and no blurring of narrative. And the director brings the production in at a tight 2 hours and 40 minutes (I’ve seen the show run three hours).
“Ragtime” focuses on three streams of American society in the early 1900’s—the established WASP class, the black underclass, and the flood of immigrants who were changing the face of American society. The story plugs in real life characters like Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, political revolutionary Emma Goldman, and show girl Evelyn Nesbitt. They intermix with three sets of fictional characters, the upper middle class white family headed by a man and a woman known only as Father and Mother. They share the storyline with an eastern European Jewish immigrant called Tateh, come to America with his young daughter to start a new life, and Coalhouse Walker Jr., a black musician bravely facing the racism of the day.
We are introduced to these three plots in the narratively stronger first act, following their assorted fates through the years, Tateh improbably triumphing as an early motion picture producer, and Walker killed by the white establishment while violently battling the entrenched racial intolerance of the day. As in “Les Miz,” the storytelling is reinforced by a series of musical themes highlighted by the ragtime music of the time popularized by the black composer-pianist Scott Joplin.
A successful production requires the melding of singing, dancing, and acting, with most exhillarating dancing emerging from the black characters doing their exuberant ragtime high stepping. The Marriott cast meets all challenges. First among equals is Nathaniel Stampley as a bold, assertive Coalhouse Walker. This is a heroic role and Stampley plays it heroically, with his booming expressive voice and commanding presence. Benjamin Magnuson is a superlative Tateh, navigating his character through the early difficulties of assimilating into American life. The musical, like the novel, does not stint on portraying the plague of ethnic and racial intolerance that churned as a virulent undercurrent in American society.
At my performance, the Marriott ensemble demonstrated how deep the talent pool runs in area theater. Kathy Voytko, who plays the key role of Mother, was replaced by Elizabeth Telford from the chorus. Voytko is one of our top divas but any disappointment in her absence was immediately dispelled by Telford’s sensitive acting and especially her radiant singing voice. She was paired beautifully with Adam Monley as Father, Will Mobley as Mother’s radical younger brother, and Patrick Scott McDermott as the young son who performs in the company of his adult colleagues with real professionalism.
Admirably filling in the scorecard of supporting players are Terry Hamilton, Larry Adams, Paula Hlava as Tateh’s silent young daughter, Matt Deitchman, James Earl Jones II, Christopher Kale Jones, Shea Coffman, Keirsten Hodgens, Zoe Nadal, and Ken Singleton as a particularly nasty Irish racist. Additionally filling in the narrative backdrop of the narrative are Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Booker T. Washington, Christina Hall as Emma Goldman, Michelle Lauto as Evelyn Nesbitt (the Brittney Spears of her day), and Alexander Aguilar as Harry Houdini. Katherine Thomas stars as Coalhouse Walker’s tragic sweetheart Sarah, who stopped the show with her passionate “You’re Daddy’s Son” aria. But everyone in the cast carried their weight in making this theatrically complex and dramatically intricate show work so well.
Kenneth L. Roberson’s choreography is perfectly integrated into the action, whether it’s a ragtime gavotte or a line of sexy chorus girls. The design team has conquered every artistic and logistical obstacle. A special tip of the hat goes to Sally Zack, the properties designer (normally an anonymous function), who assembled the objects that give the story its historical roots, including a drivable early Ford automobile that becomes a central character in the second act. Jeffrey D. Kmiec designed the set, Jesse Klug the lighting, Theresa Ham the spot-on period costumes, and Robert E. Gilmartin the sound. Patti Garwood directs the accompanying small band, making the 11 musicians sound like a big city philharmonic.
The Marriott artistic brain trust has stinted nothing in financing this production at a Broadway level. The top ticket price equates to the cost of maybe five movie tickets. You won’t find a less expensive or more satisfying buy on the Chicagoland entertainment scene.
“Ragtime” runs through March 18 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.,, and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m., with some Thursday performances at 1 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $60. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.
The show gets a rating of
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. February 2018
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