Review: “Ragtime”

A scene from “Ragtime” now playing at Griffin Theatre Company at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., through July 16.
– Michael Brosilow

RECOMMENDED

Where: Griffin Theatre Company at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through July 16
Tickets: $39
Phone: 866-811-4111

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Griffin Theatre Company’s inspired production of “Ragtime” shows once again that small local theater groups have what it takes to tackle big Broadway musicals.

Based on the 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, the show with a book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens offers a panoramic picture of the forces shaping America in the early 20th century, and Griffin captures the triumphs and torments of the inevitable changes with commitment and passion. Credit goes to imaginative director Scott Weinstein and his talented ensemble of 20 actors, as well as to the revelatory new orchestrations by Matt Deitchman brilliantly performed by three musicians—Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris on piano and Dan Hickey on clarinet—with cast members occasionally chiming in on everything from violin to drum.

Weinstein uses every corner of the comparatively small theater, cannily orienting the central circular platform in front of the musicians and the opaque arched window behind them so that the structural columns aren’t in the way. Some scenes, such as the baseball game, even are played behind part of the audience. Occasionally the blocking obscures crucial action—such as a Houdini escape behind the window—but it’s not clear how that could be avoided.

The budget-minded inventiveness of the director, scenic designer William Boles, lighting designer Alexander Rodgers, and properties designer Annamarie Giordano compensates. One of the pianos becomes Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s ill-fated Model T Ford with just the attachment of a couple of headlights, and celebrity “Girl on the Swing” Evelyn Nesbit gets a stage full of footlights thanks to simple hardware store single-bulb fixtures. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes, on the other hand, are as detailed and lavish as they need to be.

Set from 1906 to 1914, “Ragtime” juxtaposes the racism, sexism, hostility to immigrants, and inherent conservatism of the time (that still resonate today more than they should) with the openness and experimental spirit exemplified by the new music of the title that infuses the score, along with other American genres and music theater anthems. Real people—Nesbit (Caitlin Collins), Houdini (Joe Capstick), Booker T. Washington (Frederick Harris), Henry Ford (Jonathan Schwart), and radical anarchist Emma Goldman (Neala Barron)–influence and interact with three groups of fictional characters on different but intersecting trajectories.

The white, Christian family living in affluent New Rochelle, NY, is at the top of the social order. Father (Scott Allen Luke) makes enough money manufacturing fireworks and other “patriotic” products to go on faraway expeditions. Mother (Laura McClain) regards the household and the Little Boy (Ben Miller) as her domain, while Mother’s Younger Brother (Matt Edmonds) restlessly searches for his calling, and Grandfather (Larry Baldacci) gripes about pretty much everything.

While father’s ship is pulling out of New York harbor, a boatload of immigrants is arriving, among them Tateh (Jason Richards), a Jewish paper artist from Latvia, and the Little Girl (Autumn Hlava), his daughter. Their journey will take them through times of desperation to success, as Tateh hits upon the notion of moving pictures and reinvents himself as the Baron.

Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang), a talented African American ragtime pianist, isn’t so lucky. After a long courtship to woo back his beloved Sarah (Katherine Thomas) who, unbeknownst to him, had had his baby, he becomes the victim of racism and justice-denied. Then Sarah’s senseless murder pushes him over the edge into acts of terror.

Incomprehensible and unacceptable to Father when he returns, Mother’s transformation from timid soul to self-aware woman is the thread that sews the stories together. Epitomizing the open-heartedness and good sense of people at their best, she takes in the baby she finds in her garden and its mother, Sarah, and welcomes the persistent Coalhouse when he comes to win her. A chance meeting with the impoverished Tateh on a train also demonstrates her humanity, and she treats the newly minted Baron no differently, so he soon tells her the truth. The evening ends with a new kind of inclusive family—a beautiful vision that arguably seems too optimistic today.

Griffin’s ensemble does a terrific job with the choral numbers and William Carlos Angulo’s choreography. Tsopnang’s Coalhouse is the best I’ve seen: Beside being a fine singer and dancer, he’s elegant and dignified and really makes us sympathize with him despite his horrific reaction to the injustice he experiences. Velvet-voiced Thomas is first rate as Sarah, too.

McClain’s empathetic Mother also is a winner, and Richards’ Tateh has his moments, though he arguably leans too heavily on the ethnic card, and his Baron initially goes too far over the top. The rest of the actors, many of whom play multiple roles, are generally strong.

The main problem on opening night seemed to be the sound mix. Some group numbers were very loud, as were a few individuals, while others—notably the Little Boy—were at times barely audible. Hopefully, this will be resolved, and anyway, it shouldn’t keep you from seeing a memorable and moving “Ragtime.”