By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
I refuse to bury the lede on this review –”Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. is absolutely wonderful! Beautifully performed by an extraordinary cast, the singing, the dancing and the set design are all first rate. We’ll discuss a little later. First I must tell you that I’ve seen several of the incarnations of this show including the first tour to Washington, the revival at the Kennedy Center, and last summer’s marvelous production at Wolf Trap, and I can tell you that this splendid revival is as good as it gets. All the singers have the pipes and the dancers have, well, they’ve got the rhythm and all the down low Ragtime moves to make you want to jump up and dance along. Additionally, the orchestra, led by Christopher Youstra, on stage and visible but not intrusive, keeps everything moving along.
Ford’s Theatre is a perfect venue for this broad look at America at the turn of the century in light of current events. As we sit in this historic monument which celebrates Abraham Lincoln and his legacy, it’s as if the show’s themes were snipped from this morning’s headlines. In “Ragtime,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, we observe the ongoing problems of immigration, civil rights, and the struggle between the classes of a supposedly classless society, all wrapped in gorgeous song and dance with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally.
The all-star D.C. cast is led by the masterful singing of Kevin McAllister as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Nova Y. Payton, singing with such melting beauty as Sarah, I believe her voice can now do just about any role available today. Boom. Powerhouse Tracy Lynn Olivera embodies an affecting Mother, and the find of the evening, Jonathan Atkinson as Tateh, completely wins my heart and the audience with his “Buffalo Nickel” and his and Mother’s “Our Children” songs. Another casting delight is Rayanne Gonzales as the radical Emma Goldman. Her accented diction is superb and she makes quite an impression, as do Christopher Bloch, hilarious as Grandfather, Felicia Curry singing affectingly and unforgettably as Sarah’s friend, and Gregory Maheu as Mother’s cause-seeking Younger Brother.
“Ragtime,” which tells the story of three families at the turn of the 20th century, an affluent white family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American family, intersects around a sturdily built framework of stairs and platforms in three levels. Everything is transparent. Nothing is hidden except the hopes and dreams of the characters. Eventually, even those come out and some are resolved happily (Mother and Tatah and their families) and some are not (Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah). The entire cast is on stage almost all the time, dancing and singing hauntingly beautiful and poignant music amid the backdrop of such colorful American characters as Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, and Emma Goldman. When Coalhouse, an accomplished Ragtime pianist, drives out to visit Sarah, their baby, and Sarah’s host family in New Rochelle, he arrives in a brand new, pristine Model T Ford, which he adores and which eventually gets trashed by the angry local Irish-American firehouse crew. But that’s another story….
The large and diverse cast is very strong and all seem superbly suited to the time period and their roles. Just because I don’t have the space to discuss each and every one doesn’t mean they aren’t permanently imprinted in my memory and will be in yours. The cast includes James Konicek (Father), Justine “Icy” Moral (Evelyn Nesbit), Christopher Mueller (Harry Houdini), Jefferson A. Russell (Booker T. Washington), Stephen F. Schmidt (Harry K. Thaw, Adm. Peary), John Leslie Wolfe (Henry Ford) and Elan Zafir (Stanford White and Willie Conklin).
The ensemble members are Maria Egler, Eben K. Logan, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Ines Nassara, Rayshun LaMarr Purefoy, Karen Vincent and Tobias Young. The company also includes Henry Baratz and Holden Browne as Little Boy and Kylee Geraci and Dulcie Pham as Little Girl (their roles rotate every other performance). When the entire cast sings together on stage, the audience erupts either in cheers or tears, but never indifference. Kudos to the sound man, David Budries, the music and sound are simply grand!
“Ragtime” is directed by Peter Flynn, and choreographed by Michael Bobbitt, with scenic design by Milagros Ponce de León, projection design by Clint Allen, music direction and additional vocal arrangements by Christopher Youstra, costume design by Wade Laboissonniere, lighting design by Rui Rita, hair and make-up design by Anne Nesmith, and orchestrations by Kim Scharnberg. The production team also includes dramaturg Jennifer L. Nelson, dialects and voice director Leigh Wilson Smiley, production stage manager Craig A. Horness, and assistant stage manager Taryn Friend.
“Ragtime” plays at Ford’s Theatre from March 10 to May 20, 2017. Tickets are now on sale and range from $20-73. Discounts are available for groups, senior citizens and military personnel.