In its final moments, Ragtime: The Musical at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center gives us a glimpse at what the world could be: unified in its diversity, striving for a better future, and caring for one another for generations to come. It’s a long road ahead, but in the Mainstage Theater, surrounded by seven hundred teary-eyed strangers, for just a minute, it felt within reach.
This 1998 musical written by Terrence McNally provides a kaleidoscopic view into turn-of-the-century urban America. We meet an upper-class white family whose sheltered New Rochelle home is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Harlem, where a young African-American woman named Sarah (portrayed by Amanda Gross) explores a new genre of music pioneered by Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Tru Verret-Fleming). Meanwhile, Latvian immigrant Tateh (Erich Lascek) and his daughter seek out a better life in the tenements of the Lower East Side. These classes are connected by the famous faces of the early 1900s. Among them are Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry Houdini.
At the heart of this story is the arc of Coalhouse Walker Jr. Fleming displays the complexities of this character with brilliance, and his smooth voice did not ring but wafted through the theater like a fine fragrance. His chemistry onstage with Gross was undeniable. These two actors fed off of one another’s performances and making for a convincing switch in Walker’s character that led to his death, as well.
Walker’s character is what drives the conflict within the upper-class family. Sarah finds herself pregnant with Coalhouse’s son, giving birth to him and leaving him in the garden to be discovered by Mother (Daina Michelle Griffith), whose performance as a longing wife and loving mother was heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. Though her union with Tateh by the end of the production was expected, it was no less sweet, and the two shared my personal favorite number of the evening, “Our Children.” This, unfortunately, was the best chance I got to hear Griffith’s voice. Most of her performance was drowned out by Nic Barilar, who played Father and whose voice boomed over those of his costars.
On the subject of Tateh, his character was the third major pillar of the story of Ragtime. Lascek’s performance as the loving father and Latvian artist was a beautiful glimpse into the character that I’m not certain another actor among the large cast would have done with as much heart. Not only were his vocals strong, but the tenderness he possessed was warm and comforting to watch. I was reminded of what this show was truly about when I watched Lascek perform: the American dream.
There were some problems with the production, including the sound. Also, though by no means the fault of Mathew Fedorek, who portrayed Harry Houdini, I failed to see the famed illusionist’s significance to the story. The “one true mystical experience” of Houdini’s life is not explained until the final scene. On the other hand, this is a very small part of this production, which, frankly, has bigger fish to fry. Perhaps the energy spent on Houdini could have been given to Evelyn Nesbit, whose husband performed the “crime of the century” by murdering Evelyn’s lover, Stanford White. The anti-semitic tendencies of automobile tycoon Henry Ford are also never brought up, though this is likely for the best, as it would have clouded Dan LeRoy’s unexpectedly standout performance given his smaller role. (This, I ought to clarify, surprised me, as LeRoy is an instructor at Lincoln Park, though not for Theatre. He is the head of the Literary Arts Department.)
From the beginning, I knew this show would be a difficult one to pull off. Period-appropriate costumes are not easy to produce, yet these performers seemed as though they were pulled straight from the turn of the century. They even utilized a full-size moving prop car (an accurately built Model T, nonetheless)! Needless to say, this is no easy task, and the crew responsible did a splendid job creating a visually compelling show.
Though, in spite of some technical difficulties, there was simply no denying the impressive feat performed by these actors: filling the enormous set! The stage was left open, yet flanked by soaring balconies connected by a series of ladder-like stairs, which left not just the floor but the whole space to be filled. That’s exactly what these actors did, and I cannot commend them enough. Everything about this show was big, and was, for the vast majority, executed with a nearly perfect balance of precision and gusto.
Ragtime left me feeling a strange sense of optimism. From the impressively cohesive performances of the extensive ensemble to the grand yet simple set, this musical overview of the turn of the century left me with great hope for the future. I left the theater taking comfort in the thought of the continued progression of our America into the idyllic version of this show that its characters believed in.
Ragtime runs at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center through June 24. For tickets and more information click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews