Wednesday December 13th 2017

“Ragtime”

Highly Recommended **** In the last few weeks, many openings have been productions where the story involves race relations of some type. “Ragtime” based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, is a beautifully told story about three families, from different backgrounds and how their paths crossed during the turn of the century (the turn from the 1800’s to the 1900’s). They are all in search of “the American Dream” and in this musical piece written by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, we get to view how this all comes to be. The good, the bad and as it turns out, the ugly phases of the three families.

The main characters, Father ( Scott Allen Luke) a businessman, his wife, Mother (Laura McClain, with a terrific vocal range), their son (Ben Miller, who needs to do a better sound check prior to going on stage) and her brother (Matt Edmonds). This is the “White, educated, upper middle-class family, that has evidently had it easy in reaching their goals. Another family, Tateh (an amazing portrayal by Jason Richards) a Russian Jewish immigrant, who with his daughter (Autumn Hlava) has left Russia for the promise of their “American Dream”, and the third, Coalhouse Walker, Junior (brilliantly played by Denzel Tsopnang), a skilled “Ragtime” piano player who ends up being the integral part of these three families blending.

It turns out that Coalhouse has fathered a child with Sarah Brown (deftly handled by Katherine Thomas). The baby, a boy, has been left in the flower bed of Mother and Father’s home for safekeeping. Mother, who leads a lonely life with her husband off on a regular basis takes the child in along with his mother, helping to raise the child in a better world than might be offered to him otherwise. Sarah loves Coalhouse and we soon learn his feelings are the same, but before they can marry, something happens that causes Coalhouse to take vengeance on the white population, causing a war between the races. I will stop here as I would not want to ruin the story-line for you, but I will tell you that despite the turn of events that occur, there is a very happy ending.

This production, smoothly directed by Scott Weinstein is a bit different than others we have seen. It is more of a chamber musical and producing it at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage ( roughly 140 seats) on a set (William Boles has used the space to give every audience member a clear sight line) increases the intimacy of the piece. There are some new orchestrations by Matt Deithman and some solid choreography by William Carlos Angulo. The music direction by Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris is wonderfully done. They are the two piano players (and in a few instances, leave their piano to take on roles). The clarinet played by Dan Hickey is the third instrument in the musical “pit”, but several of the cast members do from time-to-time pick up an instrument and add to the great sounds. On a technical note, I am not sure they need to “mike” the pianos.

The production works because of all the pieces fitting together. I always say that the ensemble makes the difference in a musical, and this ensemble proves it beyond a doubt! In addition to the aforementioned actors, the following actors who take on several roles are a treat to watch. They are:

Larry Baldacci, Frederick Harris (Booker T. Washington), Joe Capstick (who does Harry Houdini), Jonathan Schwart, Neals Barron (as Emma Goldman , she shines), the adorable Caitlin Collins as Evelyn Nesbit, Danielle Davis, Courtney Jones, Marcellus Burt, Arielle Leverett, Alanna Lovely and Juwon Perry. A very energetic ensemble with loads of talent. On the tech side, the lighting (Alexander Ridgers) and the sound (Ralph Loza and Stephen Ptacek, except for a few body mics), costumes (Rachel Sypniewski) and props (Annamarie Giordano) were close to flawless. Like I mentioned a few of the body mics were not strong enough (but with my new hearing aids, I had no problem) but I am sure they will work these out.

Being a musical, many viewers expect to know songs from it. This is not that type of “musical” , but rather one that is built on the music moving the story along. “Ragtime” and some of the sounds will seem familiar , but the only ones that ring out in my head are “Our Children”. “Back To Before”, “Gliding” and “Make Them Hear You”. I promise that you will get into the music and even if you never hum a tune, you will recall the contents and the meanings of these pieces. The importance of this particular “chamber musical” is why Griffin Theatre Company’s Artistic Director William Massolia wanted to bring it to their audiences. While it is a lovely story, a sort of history lesson, and another look at what made America Great , it also reminds us of how far we have come and also how sometimes we take backward steps.

“Ragtime” will continue at The Den , located at 1333 N. Milwaukee Avenue thru July 16th with performances as follows:

Thursdays  7:30 p.m.

Fridays  7:30 p.m.

Saturdays  7:30 p.m.

Sundays  3 p.m.

Running time 2 hours and 28 minutes PLUS a 15 minute intermission.

Tickets  are $39 (students and seniors $34

to reserve your seats (open seating) call 866-811-4111 or visit www.griffintheatre.com

Parking can be tough in the area, but they do have valet parking ($12) and public transportation is very accessible.

To see what others are saying, visit wwwtheatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Ragtime”

 

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