By Barry Reszel
There hasn’t been a Chicagoland professional staging of this masterpiece since the Nick Bowling-directed Jeff winner (both he and the show itself) at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre in 2018. But newcomers to the title and those who care to see it again for the first time, alike, need this production now.
It seems so clear that all Americans can benefit from the reminder that the harsh realities presented here at the turn of the 20th century are being relived today—daily, hourly, by the minute—on the streets of Chicagoland and throughout this country. And those who get this poignant, staged slap on the back of the head might be inclined to share it with their neighbors. In so doing, everyone might be a little more mindful, a little more compassionate, in the days and weeks ahead. This reviewer can think of no better catalyst to begin spinning the wheels of a dream in which all find the best versions of their humanity and share it with others.
Terrence McNally‘s book based on E. L. Doctorow‘s 1975 novel of the same name tells the story of three groups in the first decade of 20th century New York: White, upper-class suburbanites of New Rochelle, especially the matriarch of one family, “Mother;” African Americans in Harlem, chiefly Ragtime pianist “Coalhouse Walker Jr.;” and Eastern European immigrants, characterized by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. Interspersed in the intermingled story of these three groups are historical figures including Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Emma Goldman and others. A full synopsis (spoilers included) and production history may be read here.
Director Stacey Flaster’s treatment of this musical’s focus on privilege, class, race, immigration and unfair justice in the early 1900s begs the acknowledgment of their parallels to today. This show and its impeccable, at times subtle, staging is a pitch-perfect master class in sociology—imploring some requisite self reflection.
Each on- and back-stage contributor to this production—worthy of any professional stage in any American city—is deserving of the highest accolades. Those in leading roles are certainly worthy of this company’s given trust. Youthful Curtis Bannister, perfectly cast as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., confidently leads this entire production with the lovely and talented Lydia Burke as Sarah. Their version of the iconic, “Wheels of a Dream,” is positively resplendent.
Strong and gorgeous Kelly Britt is a magnificent Mother, a woman ahead of her time in the ability to create her own life in her traveling husband’s absence. Brian Hupp’s (Father) operatic voice and subtly acted character arc are memorable takeaways. So, too, is Dan Gold’s characterization of Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh, who moves from despair to success with humor, wit and heartfelt kindness.
Backstage, Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes are detailed and gorgeous, complemented perfectly by the intricate hair and wig work from Alice Salazar and Charlene Sellers. Sotirios Livaditis’ mobile set has necessary touches of opulence and grunge; his use of two moving staircases creates great visual diversity without slowing the story’s movement. Ellen Markus’ props include one very cool, drive-able Model T. While Ragtime is not a dance heavy show, Choreographer Ariel Etana Triunfo’s fine talents are particularly shown off in “Gettin’ Ready Rag.” Finally, Roger Bingaman’s music direction and conducting are magnificent, as are the talents of his full orchestra members who, in this near-opera of a musical, get nary a beat’s rest.
Added to the emotional takeaways of Ragtime, this reviewer would be remiss in not pointing out Music Theatre Works’ raising of its own quality bar with this production. Now at home in Skokie’s beautiful North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Music Theatre Works here can compete with Lincolnshire’s Marriott, Oakbrook Terrace’s Drury Lane and Aurora’s Paramount for suburban on- and back-stage talent. Truly this production is as good as it gets. And with its newly announced 2022 season (link here), brimming with creative intrigue, there’s every reason to be excited about all that is to come.
Music Theatre Works presents “Ragtime” through Nov. 7 at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. More information and tickets are available here.