Chicago Theatre Review
Wheels of a Dream
Ragtime – Marriott Theatre
This is the musical Chicago has been waiting for and will be talking about for years to come. With our country currently in political upheaval regarding race relations and immigration, it’s an especially topical piece of theatre. Audiences who miss this extraordinary, visually and emotionally breathtaking musical will regret it. Marriott’s production once again validates Chicago as one of the finest theatrical cities in the nation and why it’s not always necessary to travel further than Lincolnshire in order to enjoy Broadway caliber entertainment.
Indeed, this epic musical, peopled by historical characters like Henry Ford, Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington, as well as a large company of fictional characters (all played by 29 accomplished actors, one of the largest casts ever assembled on this stage), features some of the finest theatrical talent from both the Chicago and Broadway stage. The show portrays a diversity of individuals, all striving toward the same goal: achieving the American Dream. Its story musically and dramatically draws audiences along with its characters on an unforgettable, intensely emotional journey toward that end.
Based upon E.L. Doctorow’s historical novel, the musical traces the story of three American cultures at the turn of the century: Coalhouse Walker Jr., a talented, educated African-American pianist; Mother, a woman discovering her newfound independence as the matriarch of a New Rochelle household; and Tateh, a Latvian Jewish immigrant, with a dream for his young daughter and himself. All three characters strive against unimaginable odds to achieve their own personal freedom.
When this ambitious musical opened on Broadway in 1998 it played for two years and earned Tony Awards for Best Book and Score for Terrance McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. Since then it has toured nationally several times, played London’s West End and enjoyed a Broadway revival. The sweeping story makes those ideals and historical events of the early 1900’s feel personal. And ragtime, the new sound of that era, becomes a musical metaphor for the syncopated, unpredictable political, social and cultural movements of that time. Flaherty and Ahren’s opulent score contains the cakewalks, marches, ballads, gospel and ragtime of that time period that will linger with audiences long after the curtain falls.
With fine attention to detail, director Nick Bowling once again demonstrates his finesse as one of Chicago’s premier theatre directors. Kenneth L. Roberson choreographs this show with spirit and period authenticity. Ryan T. Nelson leads the large cast and orchestra to musical mastery and Patti Garwood conducts her rich, ten-member orchestra to brilliance. The gifted Teresa Ham’s authentic period costumes, Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s simple, yet very effective scenic design (notice the deconstructed pianos that float above the stage) and Jesse Klug’s dazzling lighting further enhance the musical’s authentic look.
A standing ovation goes to the entire talented ensemble who are individually and collectively nothing short of brilliant. Special kudos, however, must go to Nathaniel Stampley’s strong, mellifluous, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking portrayal of Coalhouse Walker, Jr.; Katherine Thomas’ tender and ethereal vocals as Sarah; Kathy Voytko’s gorgeously sung, finely nuanced and poignant journey of self-discovery as Mother; and Benjamin Magnuson’s passionate, painstaking rise from desperate, downtrodden immigrant to become the optimistic symbol of the American Dream.
There are many other standouts in this wondeful ensemble cast. Young Patrick Scott McDermott and Paula Hlava may be the best Little Boy and Little Girl this reviewer has ever seen in any production. They are perfection. Will Mobley gives his all in the role of Mother’s Younger Brother; Broadway’s Adam Monley makes his auspicious Marriott debut as intense, narrow-minded Father; and Terry Hamilton turns in a comically crusty performance as Grandfather.
The cast also includes a bounty of other talented actor/singers in various supporting ensemble roles. They include the much welcome addition of sensational actress and songstress Christina Hall in the role of Russian-born political activist, Emma Goldman; Alexander Aguilar as famous immigrant illusionist, Harry Houdini; the delightful Michelle Lauto as Vaudeville entertainer and Gibson Girl, Evelyn Nesbit; the versatile actor/singer Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as African-American educator and orator, Booker T. Washington; golden-throated Larry Adams, as both American explorer Admiral Peary and banker and financier J.P. Morgan; masterful Matt Deitchman as the Captain of American Industry, Henry Ford; and, as Sarah’s Friend, the incredibly accomplished actress/singer, Keirsten Hodgens.
If you miss this production it will indeed be “The Crime of the Century;” but treating yourself to this production, one of the finest musicals ever to play Broadway, or the Marriott stage, will offer an emotional ride of a lifetime on “The Wheels of a Dream.” The savvy theatergoer will find parallels in our current unfortunately backward political climate of this country. In Marriott’s stellar production, audiences of all ages will be moved by an experience that will provoke goosebumps, laughter and a few tears. It ranks as one of this theatre’s finest productions, offering a magnificent evening that audiences will never forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 24-March 18 by the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.