Chicago Theatre Review
Make Them Hear You
Ragtime – Griffin Theatre Company
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ epic musical, with a well-adapted book by Terrence McNally, is based upon E. L. Doctorow’s sweeping, historical 1975 novel that depicts the challenges and changes that America witnessed at the turn of the century. It’s set against a newly evolving way of American life in the early 1900’s and employs as a metaphor the new, spirited musical style born of that period, called Ragtime. Doctorow penned a cast of fictional characters who interact with a number of real historical figures from that time. The result is a mellifluous valentine to the American Dream, painted here as a colorful portrait of a nation on the brink of transformation and diversity.
The primary characters are strong individuals representing three different ethnic groups. Coalhouse Walker, a ragtime pianist from Harlem, becomes the spokesman for urban African Americans; Mother, the matriarch of an upper class suburban New York family, represents the affluent Caucasian group; and Tateh, a Jewish widower from Latvia, exemplifies the masses of destitute European immigrants pouring through Ellis Island in search of a better life in America. Their stories all begin in isolation from each other, but eventually they intersect until, by the final curtain, the three groups have beautifully melded into one. These fictional characters and their families exist alongside of famous historical personalities, such as Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and others from 1906. Their journeys toward change and understanding is what electrifies this much-accoladed musical, the 1998 Tony winner for Best Book, Score, Orchestrations and Supporting Actress. It has made this musical a popular, yet challenging choice for theatre companies the world over.
Scott Weinstein, one of Chicago’s most respected and talented directors of musical theatre (at Griffin Theatre Co., he recently guided productions of “Titanic” and “Bat Boy”), has accepted the challenge to stage this somewhat abbreviated production. It’s a musical that bravely examines such universal themes as prejudice, segregation, class distinction, denouncement of the status quo and the quest for a better life. These elements have never seemed quite as timely and relevant as they are today. Weinstein’s three-quarter-round staging allows audiences to never be more than just a few feet from his talented cast.
Musical direction is in the hands of two brilliantly talented artists, who not only literally help make their cast sing, but provide most of the musical accompaniment on a pair of dueling pianos. Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris recreate the show’s haunting, melodic score, orchestrated by the multitalented Matt Deitchman, and joined by Dan Hickey on clarinet and other instruments. Their collaboration is undeniably magical and moving. Choreographer William Carlos Angulo has crafted variety and movement in the many musical numbers, ranging from the titular ragtime, cakewalks, marches and gospel, with both period authenticity and a contemporary consciousness. His work especially stands out in the difficult staging of the opening title song, “Ragtime,” as well as in “Crime of the Century,” the “Atlantic City” filming sequence and, most especially, his human automaton “Henry Ford” assembly line number.
Although missing are Broadway’s more realistically stylized sets, William Boles’ simplified, re-imagined scenic design wisely focuses on the ragtime-playing pair of pianos, one of them mobile, while allowing this show, with its multiple locales, to transition smoothly from a North Pole-bound ship to a New Rochelle mansion, from a Harlem speakeasy to the Morgan Library.
Outstanding lighting floods the venue. This is particularly found in the removable stage footlights, automobile headlights that cleverly transform an upright keyboard into a Model T, an explosion of fluffy clouds glowing outside the window and his gorgeous, sparkling Atlantic City Boardwalk. This is the work of Alexander Ridgers. Special effects are modestly executed in this intimate production, which include illusionist Harry Houdini’s mid-air suspension and vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit’s velvet swing, that sails over the playing area, and make this production as polished-looking as the venue allows. Rachel Sypniewski’s colorful array of period costumes, wigs and hair design add yet one more layer to this carefully detailed, gloriously executed production. And while the original boasted a 26-member orchestra, this production’s abbreviated accompaniment, peppered with occasional instrumentals by members of the cast, sounds surprisingly full and lush.
The excellent cast is led by several outstanding performances. Laura McClain is magnificent as Mother. From her carriage, to her subtle expressions, she is everything this upper class lady needs to be. And when she sings, the heavens open. Her clear diction and phrasing drive songs like “Goodbye My Love/Journey On,” the beautifully touching “Our Children” and her eloquent paean to change, “Back to Before.” She’s matched by Denzel Tsopnang’s terrific, multi-layered Coalhouse Walker. Always the gentleman, even when pushed to the brink, this gifted actor tells the story of a man who would make even the most hardened heart crack with sorrow. His powerful vocalization of songs, such as “Wheels of a Dream” (that never fails to evoke tears), “Sarah Brown Eyes” and one of the best eleventh hour anthems ever written for a show, “Make Them Hear You,” are alone worth the price of admission.
Other standouts include the incredibly astounding vocal and dramatic talents of Neala Barron, as human rights activist, Emma Goldman; Scott Allen Luke, very good in the thankless role of Father, is a man at odds with the changing world in which he lives; Jason Richard’s exuberant, undaunted and nicely-rounded Tateh brings unbridled life and love to this show; Matt Edmonds’ contemporary-thinking and heartbreaking Younger Brother is unforgettable; Frederick Harris portrays an heroically played, nicely sung Booker T. Washington; Caitlin Collins is topnotch as giddy, spirited vaudevillian celebrity, Evelyn Nesbit; Joe Captstick’s flexible and well-vocalized Harry Houdini, among other roles, are all believably executed; and Danielle Davis’ vocally dramatic friend of Sarah’s brings Act I to an agonizing close.
But one of this production’s finest voices and most touching performances comes from lovely Katherine Thomas, in the pivotal role of Sarah, the mother of Coalhouse’s son. This consummate actress plays her character with wise restraint, knowing that less is more. She understands just when tenderness and empathy are called for, bringing her gorgeously legit vocal talent into melodic play, especially with “Your Daddy’s Son.”
“Ragtime,” is much welcome in its return to Chicago this Spring. In a somewhat modest production, Scott Weinstein has directed this wonderful, Tony Award-winning piece, sparing none of its drama or humorous moments. He consistently maintains the integrity of the original production while supplying his own unique energy and drive that are make its themes as contemporary as today. The show’s lush vocal sound, magnificent musical accompaniment and the stirring performances of this 20-member cast is guaranteed to bring audiences to their feet by the final curtain. Just be sure to bring a handkerchief with you, because your eyes will be filled with tears.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 27-July 16 by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, at 866-811-4111 or by going to www.griffintheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.