The people called it Ragtime,” and the cast of the Kensington Arts Theatre’s production of the musical Ragtime makes some truly breathtaking Ragtime. Most of the cast has several decades of experience and every single voice onstage blew me away, which is important in this musical with a very challenging score.
This is the best of theater in our community – in the original sense of the word – a community of incredibly talented people coming together with gorgeous voices in a superior production. The musical premiered in 1997 with music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally. They based it on a classic novel about class and race in America by E.L. Doctorow set in the churning change of the early 1900s.
Director Darnell Morris does great things with the actors in every scene, for instance arranging three main characters, Father, Tateh, and Mother facing the audience for “Journey On,” though Mother is onshore while the others are on two different ships. The stylized ensemble numbers are also brilliant with choreography by the director himself and Eben K. Logan who also plays Sarah. Even brief transitions between scenes become dance numbers.
The first major number, “Ragtime” is a great example as the three main families of the play, the upperclass white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African American family from Harlem circle around each other. Each group has it’s own style of dance and rhythm as they take over the stage for each solo. That caliber goes straight through the production on every big number like “A shtetl iz Amereke,” as the immigrants dream of their life here and “Coalhouse Demands” in the second half when that dream has turned dark.
The plot brings the three families together in surprising ways. Mother (Malinda Markland) finds an African American baby and takes in his mother Sarah (Eben K. Logan). The baby’s father, piano player Coalhouse Walker (Sayne-Kharyi Lewis) comes to get her back even as the racism of Mother’s community tears them down. Latvian immigrant Tateh (Benjamin Greenfield) goes to work in a mill for his daughter before joining the labor movement then trying to get rich in the movies.
Most of the musical is sung through and it is the voices that make this production extraordinary. Markland (Mother) is the matriarch of the stage. Her voice is polished and a pleasure, especially on her solos “What kind of Woman” and “Back to Before,” both of which explore her role as a wife and mother who believed nothing was ever going to change. Brad Carnes- Stein (Father) is great as the stubborn patriarch who does not enjoy Ragtime and does not change. Harrison Smith (Younger Brother) travels a long way from a bumbling, privileged youth to vigilante and does it with a superb tenor voice in songs like “He Wanted to Say.”
Little Boy (Cole Edelstein and Eli Schuman share the role on alternate dates) launches the play. Edelstein is a wonderful actor, disappearing into his role unlike many child actors are able to. Little Girl (Julia Laje and Shira Minsk share the role) is on as much as Tateh and had a serious journey to go on as well. They sang beautifully, especially in their duet “Nothing like the City.”
Other characters from history come in and out: JP Morgan (Joe Cannon), Booker T Washington (Montario Hill) Harry Houdini (Bobby Libby) and Evelyn Nesbit (Michelle Hill). They all can hold their own with the main cast and lend bit of humor to the dark subjects.
Benjamin Greenfield (Tateh) has a beautiful tenor for his heartbreaking role and adopts an accent that enhances but does not overpower the character. Sayne-Kharyi Lewis (Coalhouse) has a smooth, powerful voice that shatters during “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy.”
Eben K. Logan (Sarah) has a haunting, beautiful voice for many of the most challenging songs of the piece, like “Your Daddy’s Son” and “Wheels of a Dream,” which she sings with Coalhouse. That duet is a real standout. One of the potential challenges of this show is that so much is song and so many different people sing together, but that becomes a real delight in this production as there is not a weak lead in the piece nor in the chorus. Coalhouse and Sarah, Tateh, and Mother on “Our Children,” Mother and Father on “Journey On,” all of the numbers are just gorgeous.
Musical Director and Conductor Mayumi B. Griffie has done a great job coaching these songs from the performers, especially as the band is hidden behind a curtain in the back. The band is enthusiastic but not overpowering as they tackle the Tony Award-winning score. The two keyboard players, Laura Brady and William L. Lake Jr. were great, which is important in a piece called Ragtime.
The set by Matt Karner leaves a lot room for the dancing as a simple raised walkway in the back of the stage is the only permanent piece and key elements are rolled on and off for quick changes. The barebone pieces frame a piano or a model-T with just a set of ivories or two main headlights.
The costumes shine before the minimalist set with stiff, formal white clothes for Father’s family, loose dresses and vests in a red palette for Coalhouse’s and headscarves and shawls in dark colors for Tateh’s.
Bare bulbs light the back of the stage and stand in for fireworks as the rest of the lighting design by Ben Levine drenches the stage in warm yellows or blood reds to conjure those long ago days when electricity was new.
As we live through another upheaval in America and still grapple with issues of race, immigration, class, and equality, this show becomes more important than ever. KAT more than does justice to this instant American classic with ambitious, polished dance numbers and truly beautiful voices. It is a dramatic, impressive, entertaining show.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.