The Golden Age of D.C. area shows this spring continues with the opening of Ragtime by 2nd Star Productions. Excellent performances by Carl Williams, Ashley Lyles, Stephen Yednock, Heather McMunigal, and E. Lee Nicol push this musical to extraordinary heights. The show, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, and with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, was directed with panache by Nathan W. Bowen.
The opening number, “Ragtime” set the tone of the story, which focused on characters from three distinct worlds: White American, African American and Jewish American in the early 20th century. Historical figures such as Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman turned up in a tale that addressed many “major issues we still face today, from racial inequality and prejudices, to immigration, to gender inequality…” wrote Bowen in his Director’s Note. The title of the show refers to ragtime music, which was popularized by Scott Joplin. The music, which peaked between 1897 and 1918, was popular in red light districts in a number of American cities.
Choreographer Anwar Thomas cleverly grouped various societal groups into precise, moving triangle-shaped formations during the aforementioned opening number, which also featured the top-flight period-costume work of Co-Costumers Alyssa Wellman Houde and Mary Wakefield. Emily L. Sergo’s superb Music Direction (along with Assistant Music Director Chris Pinder) was immediately evident as well.
The singing voices ranged from powerful to pure gold. The star among stars of the night was Ashley Lyles, who played Sarah, the beloved of piano-playing ragtime-musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., played by the excellent-in-every-scene Carl Williams. Lyles’ “Your Daddy’s Son” and her duet with Williams on “Wheels of a Dream” were emotional dynamite.
The incomparable Stephen Yednock, recently seen in The Wizard of Oz, played the Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh. Yednock rode through an amazing character arc. His strongest tunes were “A Shtetl Iz Amereke,” “Success,” “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.,” and “Gliding” which left with me with a feeling of hope versus the gloominess of some of the show’s subject matter.
I loved Williams in his many lapel-grabbing scenes. He stood out in the tunes “His Name Was Coalhouse Walker,” “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy” and the angry “Justice.”
McMunigal played Mother, who adopted Sarah and her baby into her home, with compassion. I adored her solos in tunes such as “Goodbye, My Love,” “What Kind of Woman,” and the wrenching “Back to Before.”
Nicol as Father excelled in songs such as “Journey On” and the rousing, baseball-themed “What a Game.” Nicol, a world champion trumpet player, recently performed in Guys n Dolls.
Victoria Rose Brown brought humor to her role as the real-life sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit. She showed peppy pipes and hilarious hoofing in the tune “Crime of the Century.” Brown had a good duet with Davis Wootton-Klebanoff’s Harry Houdini in “Atlantic City, Part 1.” Wootton-Klebanoff (who has a Physics degree!) is in his third show with 2nd Star.
The cast, taken all together, featured one attention-grabber after another: Cara Marie Pellegrino as political anarchist Emma Goldman; Brad Eaton, who sang well in “Look What You’ve Done” as Booker T. Washington; Rene “Keith” Flores, in his 2nd Star debut as Henry Ford; Eric Meadows, in his fifth 2nd Star production, as J.P. Morgan; Jason Beall as Younger Brother; Chase Nester as Little Boy; WATCH Award nominee for Outstanding Featured Actor in Play, Gene Valendo as Grandfather; Snowdenn A. Jackson as Little Girl; and Josh Hampton, an Air Force veteran with 11 2nd Star shows under his belt, as Willie Conklin.
Bowen also directed a large ensemble, which included: Jeremy Hanson, Rowan Hastings, Ricardo Horsey, Steve Mangum, Randal Mars, Summer Moore, Sophia Riazi-Sekowski, Diane Schwartz, Zoe Smith, Andrew Trent, Rhonda Wardlaw, Mary Zajic, Lori Bonnette, Erin Culfogienis, Robbie Dinsmore, Jaron Givens, Stephanie Bernholz, Payten Blake, and Angela Arnold.
The set, which had to evoke many settings, consisted of an upstage scrim that took on various, colored lighting, scenery wagons and rolling scaffolding, all designed by Scene Designer and Set Painter Jane Wingard and aided by Joanne Wilson’s Set Decoration. Valendo designed and supervised construction of Coalhouse’s gorgeous Model T Ford.
The show received a long and hearty standing ovation. Ragtime is mandatory viewing for families and musical lovers.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Ragtime plays through June 30, 2018, at 2nd Star Productions performing at The Bowie Playhouse – 16500 Whitemarsh Park Drive, in Bowie, MD. For tickets, call (410) 757-5700, or (301) 832-4819, or purchase them online.