By Bryson David Hoff
With the ongoing conflict in Washington expanding to now-regular protests on the streets of America’s major cities, questions of what it means to be American and what the foundational principles of the United States actually are have returned to the forefront of public consciousness.
In many ways, this makes Griffin Theatre Company’s decision to stage Ragtime a thematic no-brainer.
Conceived in 1996 as an American answer to Les Misérables, Ragtime is a sprawling epic set in the early years of the 20th century. Based on the acclaimed novel by E.L. Doctorow, the plot follows the intersecting lives of three families: an affluent white family of Roosevelt republicans in New Rochelle, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia (Jason Richards) desperately trying to carve out a life for himself and his young daughter (Autumn Hlava) and upwardly mobile Harlem piano-player Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang) who is seeking reunion with his fiancée Sarah (Katherine Thomas) and their infant son. The interplay between these three communities as well as the forces of history weaves a narrative that reveals both the best and the worst of the American ethos. A full plot summary and production history of the 1998 Tony Award-winning musical may be read here.
The scope of the text makes it an intriguing choice for storefront theatre. The original production was famous for its spectacle, including extensive pyrotechnics and lavish set pieces that saw a working replica of a Model T Ford. Thankfully, Scott Weinstein’s direction recognizes the need to refocus the staging concept for this more intimate approach. William Boles’s unit set is designed in the fashion of an Industrial Era textile mill, evoking the urban buildings that serve today as the most visible legacies of the time period. It also provides a canvas that allows for the human drama to come to the forefront in a way not allowed in the more lavish, traditional staging.
There is not a weak link in the ensemble, whose energy and stamina is impressive. In the two-and-a-half hour run time, hardly anyone gets a break for longer than 5 minutes, and many chorus members not only juggle multiple minor characters but also provide supplemental instrumentation to the two pianos and assorted woodwind instruments that form the bedrock of Matt Deitchman’s brand new orchestrations.
Among the principle cast, there are three obvious standouts. Tsopnang’s Coalhouse contains tenderness and wry urbanity in perfect measures, making the dark turns of his character arc all the more heartbreaking and tragic, even when he has sunk into the depths of violent rage. He makes a nice parallel to Richards’ Tateh, who, despite their characters never sharing a scene, embodies a similarly passionate fatherhood. Richards manages a difficult feat for an actor: portraying a character who wears his emotions on his sleeve, going from despair to elation over the course of the evening without breaking emersion by going over the top. His reactions are big, but grounded in a humanity that makes his scenes a joy to watch.
But it is Laura McClain in her role as the matriarch of the New Rochelle family who shines brightest. The effortless beauty and elegance of her singing voice is matched by her deft navigation of her character arc. She is tasked with embodying a shift that is gradual yet profound, and she carries it off so well that it forms the spine for a text that has been criticized by its detractors for not having a strong enough through-line. Her rendition of “Back to Before,” a ballad that can too easily fall flat coming so late in an already emotionally draining evening, is instead electrifying and positively anthemic.
Any gripes over various sound glitches during the opening night performance seem petty in the face of the near universal excellence of the production, especially as this is a common plague early in the run of a technically complex production, and the crew seemed to have already ironed out the worst of the problems for the second act. In short, Griffin Theatre Company has put together an impressive revival of a piece that seems timelier now than it was at its inception.
Griffin Theatre Company presents “Ragtime” through July 22 at The Den Theatre, 1331 N Milwaukee Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.