Review: ‘Ragtime’ at Ford’s Theatre

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Glorious! Dazzling! Verve! Bursting at the seams with voices and stories of America’s humanity and originating dreams.

The cast of ‘Ragtime.’ Photo by Carol Rosegg.

These are the words I felt as Ragtime, now at Ford’s Theatre, unfolded before me. And it all began with the show’s opening; a full-company production number in which 24 voices, 48 feet, nine musicians, and an upright piano were smoothly synchronized.

This Ford’s incarnation of the often-produced Ragtime has a palpable, robust personality. Under Peter Flynn’s lucid direction Ragtime is full of heart and optimism, sorrow, and anger, with humor dished out as well, that is stunningly sung and deeply conveyed by a remarkable cast of local; yes local, DC area talent.

As directed by Flynn, I got what I had hoped for walking into Ford’s Theatre from a cold winter night. I didn’t want subtlety. I wanted something deeper; I got that and more.

With a nine-member orchestra performing about 30 musical numbers, Ford’s Theatre was full of ragtime syncopation and other musical motifs that blew the winter cold out of me. Christopher Youstra was music director and vocal arranger with orchestration by Kim Schamberg. Michael Bobbitt had his charges moving in harmony through energetic choreography and quick time movements, keeping the production full of visual momentum. Whether the dances were sensual swaying and sashaying, or take-offs of more geometric, less voluptuous “old world” dances. Bobbitt finds ways to give a visual essence to the production. 

What Ford’s Ragtime truly has is oodles of humanity. The cast, all 24 of them, in parts big and small, made me feel real sentiments as they sang and dance to soulful ballads or popping full-company numbers composed by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahens. With a book by Terrence McNally, jeez, how could anyone who has a beating heart and even a hint of decency in them not be in awe of what can be done by creative artists.

Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If you are unfamiliar with the theater musical version of Ragtime, originally produced in 1996 (opening not long after U.S. President Bill Clinton won his second term); it is based upon the award-winning 1975 book, Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. As in the book, the musical broadly interweaves stories of three groups of Americans at the turn of the 20th century; not long before the Great War ensnarled America. The three groups are African-Americans represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; a white, upper-class family with Mother and Father living in the suburbs of New Rochelle, NY, and newly-arrived Jewish immigrants focusing on one particular father named Tateh and his young motherless daughter.

 As Coalhouse Walker Jr., Kevin McAllister is a haunting, “don’t mess with me” presence. Whether in speaking or singing his deep resonant baritone voice cut through me and made me sit up straight. His rectitude singing “Make Them Hear You” rings out for notice and justice. I would have followed him. Nova V. Payton as Sarah, Coalhouse’s love interest, (My God, what a voice!). Whether hurt or happy in her role as Sarah, Payton gives an honest performance. In her ballad “Your Daddy’s Son,” she moved me. In their sweet duet about a future in America, “The Wheels of a Dream,” and what might have been, “Sarah Brown Eyes,” well, they were beautifully authentic.

Henry Baratz, Tracy Lynn Olivera, and James Konicek. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Tracy Lynn Olivera as Mother, is a “Wow!” not only with her nuanced performance as a woman with a heart that finds a way to come out, but also with her delivery of her Act I and Act II book-end songs, Act I’s “What Kind of Mother” and Act II’s “Back to Before” provided emotional resonance for her arc from a homebody to a woman fully committed to herself and the new America. And her voice is heavenly.

James Konicek as Father plays his stiff, less-than-affectionate WASPY character as a man unwilling to kiss his wife on the lips until way too late or shake hands with Coalhouse. His slow trajectory to some enlightenment does come. Mother’s younger brother, nicely portrayed with some shadings by Gregory Maheu, has a trajectory from a boyish man ogling a flashy woman, to someone willing to put his life on the line for a bigger cause. Not so unlikely then or now.

Dulcie Pham and Jonathan Atkinson. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Jonathan Atkinson’s Jewish immigrant father, Tateh, is a bundle of Old Country dialect with jumpy, never-stand-still verve to his mannerisms and speaking style. Always protective of his young daughter; trying to decipher how to survive as a street entrepreneur. The chance meeting that give his meaning may be a little too deux-machina, but so what. Atkinson’s voice has authority to it as a man with no sure answers, but a sure tongue, as we hear in “Gliding,” and the beautiful and hopeful “Our Children” sung with Olivera.

And then there are the visits from various real people of the early 20th Century who provided pop when they appeared. To name those who left stronger impression there are Rayanne Gonzales as firebrand Emma Goldman, John Leslie Wolf as Henry Ford (aside, my parents told me never buy a Ford vehicle since Ford was a major anti-Semite), Jefferson A. Russell as a compliant obsequious “Look What You’ve Done” Booker T. Washington, and Justine “Icy” Moral who plays the real short-time celeb Evelyn Nisbet with a delightfully high pitched “Wheeee!”

Ford’s Ragtime has many first-rate technical design elements all making the tight Ford’s stage area look lavish. Milagros Ponce de León’s deceptive-looking, open skeletal design is a 3 story set design as a movable feast. It anchors the show, yet is open to any number of permutations. Rul Rita’s lighting is alive and gorgeous, pin-pointing and shading the entire company or duets and solos. Period costumes from Wade Laboissonniere are spot-on. Projections by way of Clint Allen come to life as the pages of moving picture books we flipped through as children. Nice touch.

Director Peter Flynn’s vision for Ragtime is a joy of emphasized humanity delivered by golden voices who lived and breathed their songs and each and every lyric.

I once remember reading a comment that tagged Ragtime as a “long, secular revival meeting.” Well, I for one was happy to sit in at this particular revival meeting. Right now, especially. This revival meeting, has open emotions, plenty of deep-throated anthems singing, and dialogue of an America that now seems so distant a dream.

So, yes Ragtime had emotionally involved me from the get-go. Let me mix a little Shakespeare to my comment, and hopefully not too over-the-top. Let me call Ford’s Ragtime, an unlikely equivalent to Henry V’s magnificent, rousing “Once more onto the breach” speech to get his troops ready to take on what seemed impossible…to change the world..

Ford’s Theatre’s astounding Ragtime is the event of this theatre season. Don’t miss it!

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.

Ragtime plays through May 20, 2017, at Ford’s Theatre – 511 Tenth Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 347-4833, or purchase them online.

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