Chicago Reviews

Marriott’s “Ragtime” Is Sheer Perfection

Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member

Photos by Liz Lauren

When Ragtime premiered in the late 90s, the Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens musical about pre-World War One prejudices about black people and immigrants seemed a timely reminder to America about how far we had come. Twenty years further on, it’s shocking to watch it and see how much we have gone backwards. The artful, brilliantly staged and performed production currently playing at Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre that should become the standard against which all future productions of this play are judged, is arguably more timely now than ever before. In this era of Black Lives Matter and American xenophobia, it’s a reminder both that it was immigrants who built this country and that fear and hatred only causes more fear and hatred. And its story of a woman coming into her own is all the more powerful in the Trump era.

Ragtime is the musical version of the sprawling E.L. Doctorow novel that told of the deep changes that swept over America in the early 20th Century. It’s central storylines involve an upper class New Rochelle family, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and a piano player from Harlem. In the imaginative alternative reality of the play, these disparate people not only affect each others’ lives, but they manage to come across such historical figures as Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and J.P Morgan, all of whom play important roles in the proceedings. The plot line begins with the discovery of a black baby in the garden of the wealthy family’s home.
The Mother (the amazing Kathy Voytko), who has always been subject to her husband’s decisions (Father, played by Adam Monley) in all matters, has been left behind when he decides to accompany Admiral Peary (we briefly meet him too) on a trip to the North Pole, and thus is forced to decide what to do about this herself. To her own surprise, she takes in both the child and his mother, Sarah (Katherine Thomas, reprising her role from the Griffin Theatre’s fall production), and sets the stage for the family’s relationship with the piano player Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nathaniel Stampley), the baby’s father.

Meanwhile we are introduced to the immigrant, Tateh, played by Benjamin Magnuson, who has made the arduous oversea journey to America in the hope of a new life after the death of his wife. Tateh, an artist who makes silhouettes, dreams of an America where anyone can make it rich and his daughter can wear nice clothes all the time. What he finds, of course, are the disease-ridden slums of New York City. Magnuson’s Tateh, along with Voytko’s Mother, are the emotional touchstones of the piece: we watch as they change with the circumstances they have created for themselves and grow in the process. Two scenes in which they cross paths and converse—under very different conditions—are tender and revealing as the show momentarily narrows its focus to two people (at first strangers) who in their own ways understand loneliness. In both cases, director Nick Bowling places them at a distance from each other; in both cases, the actors can surmount that distance with the looks in their eyes.

Central as they are to the play, the stories of these characters’ growths is secondary to the story of Coalhouse and Sarah. Both Thomas and Stampley use their considerable stage presence and powerful voices to advantage as the piano player first “courts” a reluctant Sarah (whom he once abandoned) and then sets out on a life with her and their child. Unfortunately, prejudice rears its ugly head and, in a “driving while black” incident, Coalhouse’s new Model T is destroyed by (ironically) a group of Irish immigrant volunteer firemen who themselves have been ill-treated by America.
His vow not to marry until he has justice for this mistreatment sets the stage for the rest of the play, which involves a terrible catastrophe that propels him to ever greater acts of vengeance.

Throughout all of this, Mother’s Younger Brother (Will Mobley), recognizing the emptiness of the decadent life he lives with his family in New Rochelle, strives to find some meaning to give to his life. He seeks it first in love, hoping to strike up a relationship with his celebrity crush, Nesbitt (the always incredible Michelle Lauto) but, rebuked, seems out more radical ways to reinvent and find himself. Hearing Goldman (Christina Hall) speak of injustice and the need for equality, he is moved to find some way of satisfying his newly ignited revolutionary fervor.

It’s a lot of plot for one musical (and book writer Terrence McNally condensed Doctorow’s novel significantly to get it down to these central parts) but Bowling is up to the task of holding all of these pieces together and making us care deeply about each one. Using a set designed by Jeffrey D. Kmiec that features hanging fragments of a demolished piano (symbolic of Coalhouse’s life) and very effective but minimal props on a stage that rises in various places to create the illusion of different locations, Bowling has taken the square Marriott stage to places it has rarely seen. His staging, from the opening number, is compelling. In that number (“Ragtime”) he manages to fit his entire very large company onto the stage in such a way that not only can all of its elements by seen by the theatre in the square crowd, but each is appropriately highlighted and stage pictures result that are impressive for over thirty people crammed into a small space. His Harlem ragtime bar spills directly into the middle of his New Rochelle patio, and the result isn’t chaos but something that dramatically enhances both and sets us up for the overlap between the two stories. If audiences gave standing ovations to individual songs, this would easily have earned one.

All elements come together perfectly in this production. Theresa Ham’s costumes could not be more on point, from the brilliant whites of the family’s initial clothing to the varying browns of Harlem to the beautiful purple dress worn by Mother late in the play when she has found some independence from her former life. Jesse Klug’s lighting design and Robert Gilmartin’s sound design are outstanding. And Ryan T. Nelson’s eleven-piece orchestra (conducted by Patti Garwood) has the rich sounds of a far larger group.

This is easily one of the best plays that I have ever seen at the usually reliable Marriott Theatre. It is also an important one. Noted for more traditional fare (this season also brings us Oklahoma and Holiday Inn), the Marriott often excels in the unexpected. Past productions of plays like Les Miserables and even Miss Saigon were thrilling to watch in the small, intimate space. But there is something about this Ragtime, with all of the impressive performers and the inventive direction, that outdoes them all. And its central messages of tolerance and equality—for blacks, for immigrants, for women—simply could not be more auspiciously timed. Still, as Bowling himself states in his program note, nothing about any of this can ever be taken for granted again. His staging suggests what he calls “the long and dangerous journey that lies ahead for the new family that rises from the ashes of this story,” and in this era of retrograde politics, we need more than ever to be aware of what we have to lose.

The Marriott’s Ragtime is theatre as it is meant to be. It is entertaining, provocative, funny and powerful. It is easily the best show I have seen so far in 2018, and I doubt that I’ll see another that is better.

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