Easily one of most under-rated musicals to come out of Broadway in the last 20 years, Ragtime: The Musical—with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens—follows the lives of three families and their communities through the tumultuous and promise filled early 20th century. For each member of the African American, upper-class suburbanite, and Eastern European immigrant groups, the fight for understanding brought unique perspectives to this vibrant and challenging time in American history. And for the company of this latest revival Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, this thought-provoking and enlivening production was a perfect fit.
From Emma Goldman played by Sandy Zwier to Booker T. Washington played by Jeffrey Johnson II, each actor delivered a performance to be proud of and through it moved me to root for everyone (well, just about everyone) on the stage. I intensely wanted each to embrace the change and growth they were presented with. For a musical already driven so lyrically by the stories of individuals, these actors made me taste the struggles, the disappointment, and the hope that they each lived.
No story more dramatic and touching than the relationship of the musical’s central couple, Sarah played by Leslie Jackson and Coalhouse Walker Jr played by Chris Sams. From the carelessness of young love in “Sarah Brown Eyes” to the heartbreak of the losses that weighed heavy, both in the powerful desperation of “Your Daddy’s Son” and the smooth sorrow of “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy,” Jackson and Sams’ thoughtfulness and passion drove the tale forward at breakneck speed.
Often bringing comic relief to the production was the inextinguishable optimism and fatherly devotion of Tateh played by Matthew Curiano. Faced with years of hardship after his decision to move his life and daughter, played by Cara Myers, to a new life in America, Curiano’s Tateh was rooted in kindness, determination, and that innovative spark that fosters the American Dream. You could see both Curiano’s and his character’s energy touched every member of the company.
Once such member was the standout performance of Kate Turner as Mother. Easily my favorite to watch develop from scene to scene, her heart raced in front of her head with an admirable compassion. Faced with a departing husband, Father played by Troy Bruchwalski, her “Goodbye My Love” exposed a loneliness and helplessness that sat on your heart. Eventually in finding purpose and heartache in her friendship with Coalhouse, Sarah, and their son, and in finding happiness and the beginnings of love with Tateh, the evolution of Mother brought to the stage by Turner and culminating in “Back to Before” was triumphant, liberating, and chill worthy.
Equally as impactful was the passionate sincerity of Mother’s Younger Brother played by Donald Coggin. A man who has quite clearly never feel at home in his own skin or within his home, Coggin’s earnest connection to the causes he both sought out (“He Wanted to Say”) and stumbled across (“At Union Square”) was immediately endearing and pushed me to fervently hope he found his own place and his own peace.
But for me, it was those moments when the entire company was gathered that I caught myself holding my breath. In particular hearing their versions of “New Music” and “Till We Reach That Day” caused me to stop and collect myself in that moment. Here, with a stage of dozens and as an audience of hundreds, were hundreds over again of stories just as varied, just as wrought, just as hopeful, and just as important.
The rest of the cast and ensemble members—Bob Marcus, Mark, Alpert, Todd Berkich, John Anker Bow, Jillian Van Niel, Joshua William Green, John Barsoian, Alec Mathieson, Colleen Gallagher, Aneesa Folds, Joe Callahan, and Heidi Santiago—entirely deserve praise for their parts and often understated narratives that ran through the production. Through their performances, Ragtime found a new depth of character that couldn’t help but carry the mind away.
Aiding in the mental transportation was the excellent Scenic Design by Kevin Depinet. Free floating staircases spun from ship decks to library steps at the hands of ensemble members, and a hollow piano became Coalhouse’s home. Both elements were so minimal and yet so powerful, they seemed to have created the bones of the nation upon which the characters lived and flowed. And the Atlantic City boardwalks splashed onto the scene with the Projection Design of Mike Tutaj. Additionally, the Lighting Design by Mike Baldassari and Sound Design by Craig Cassidy caused me quite literally to wince and jump in my seat with their unique approach to some of the musical’s most tense moments.
Heart beating with both excitement and adrenaline, I left the Filene Center as though I could feel the call of Coalhouse’s challenge to “Make Them Hear You.” Though we are separated by over a century, carrying the message of this powerful story and production is almost like riding on the wheels of a dream
Running Time: 2 hour 25 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Ragtime: The Musical plays through Saturday, June 11th at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap – 1645 Trap Road, in Vienna, VA. For tickets, call (877) 965-3872, or purchase them online. For future performances, check out Wolf Trap’s calendar of events.