Griffin Theatre’s Ragtime Shows History Surrounds Us

Denzel Tsopnang with the cast of Griffin Theatre Company’s production of Ragtime. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, Ragtime, now playing in a production by Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre, weaves together three families’ stories at the beginning of the 20th century. Those three families come from disparate circumstances: Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang), a Harlem ragtime musician; Mother (Laura McClain), who represents upper class white society; and Tateh (Jason Richards), who depicts the struggles of a Jewish, Latvian immigrant. Sprinkled throughout the story are a host of historical figures, as well, including Harry Houdini (Joe Capstick), Emma Goldman (Neala Barron), and Booker T. Washington (Frederick Harris). Although the storyline focuses on three distinct families, the thrust of the musical’s narrative arc centers around Mother finding a baby in her garden and beginning to care for it. This infant, left by Sarah (Katherine Thomas), is the son of Coalhouse Walker Jr., who comes every day to talk to Sarah and be reunited with his child. In this way, the lives of Mother, Father (Allen Luke), Younger Brother (Matt Edmonds), Grandfather (Larry Baldacci) and The Little Boy (Ben Miller) become intertwined in the fates of Sarah and Coalhouse. Meanwhile, Tateh and his daughter (a quietly expressive Autumn Hlava as The Little Girl) search for their slice of the American Dream, ultimately finding success in the creation of hand-drawn flipbooks and later feature films.   Staged with audience members in a semi-circular thrust, director Scott Weinstein’s production makes use of almost every inch of space in the Den’s Heath Main Stage. In addition to the circular stage where most of the action unfolds, Weinstein also populates the audience in and throughout the aisle and rows of audience members, surrounding us with composer Stephen Flaherty’s music. In large ensemble numbers, this choice is particularly effective. The opening of the show (“Prologue: Ragtime”) is performed wonderfully, enveloping you in song and harmony. Another standout ensemble moment occurs when Father takes The Little Boy to a baseball game. Here, the audience becomes the crowd of the game, as members of the cast sit throughout the audience, cheering, jeering, and singing “What A Game.” Indeed, the moments in Ragtime when the actors fill the theater are some of the production’s strongest. These moments of greatness are tempered by other aspects of Weinstein’s production, however. While the cast  comprises uniformly strong singers, the same cannot be said for the uniformity of its actors. Barron, Edmonds, Richards and Thomas all get great mileage in their character’s scenes, but other actors leave a bit to be desired. Weinstein’s direction further complicates these issues in some scenes, calling for awkward pauses or silences in moments where the action onstage parallels current events, in an effort to assure that we make the connection. And at press opening, there were still some microphone levels to be worked out; while 85 percent of the show was well-mixed, several actors' microphones, especially The Little Boy’s clipped or dipped in volume a noticeably distracting amount. Despite these flaws, Ragtime still resonates in this Griffin Theatre production. Thanks to several strong performances, the evening remains an engaging one, a historical marker of our own progress as well as the continuing struggles we face as a country. It’s hard not to leave with hope for a brighter future, as the ensemble’s song swells to fill the house and the adorable Coalhouse Walker III (Blace McGraw) runs up to join them. A brighter America awaits us, and we play a part in its history. Griffin Theatre's Ragtime has been extended and you can see it through July 22 at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Buy tickets for $30-39 for performances Thursday-Sunday.
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Brent Eickhoff

Brent Eickhoff is a Chicago-based director, writer, and educator. Brent has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., The Arc Theatre, The Public House Theatre, Something Marvelous, Whiskey Radio Hour, and The Burrowers. He is the Educational Coordinator for Silk Road Rising, and is a founder and co-artistic director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. While Brent has worked with a variety of Chicago theatre artists, he doesn't let that get in the way of writing unbiased reviews of any production he covers.