It’s not for nothing that director Nick Bowling selected Ragtime for the 2018 season at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. When he read the book for the 1996 play, which was based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, Bowling saw a different world than he’d seen 12 years ago, one more fraught with the problems and tensions present in the world of Ragtime and thought the play could serve as a reminder to act. “I hope that we might all wake up and resist the urge to fall asleep again.”
The Marriott Theatre group consistently produces high quality, lavish shows and Ragtime is no exception. I saw the Broadway production when it ran in Chicago in 1996, and this production equals or surpasses it. As soon as the first chord is struck, a colorful, lively world emerges. The theater’s in-the-round structure further immerses us in life at the turn of the century, when such titans of industry as J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford were changing the face of the country. But all the cheerful music and pretty pastels don’t hide the racial and cultural tensions just under the surface.
Ragtime is a play that takes you to another time, but especially in our current political and cultural climate, wakes you up to the fact that things haven’t changed–or at least haven’t changed enough. Even without the pressing problems of our own society, Ragtime would be an emotionally charged show, but seeing it now adds another layer of tragedy to the tale.
While there are actual historic figures like Morgan, Harry Houdini and Booker T. Washington, at least in the Marriott production, the real standouts exist in the imagined ones. There were fantastic performances by several of the main characters, but none stood out to us more than Benjamin Magnuson’s role as Tateh, a Jewish Latvian immigrant with a little girl he loves more than anything in the world. Magnuson fully embodies his character and makes him dynamic. Tateh is fatherly but mischievous, inventive but broken, and when he breaks down after an altercation that seems to take away every hope he had for America, I defy you to maintain your own composure. (I could not.)
Magnuson is in good company though, as colleagues Katherine Thomas, who plays Sarah, and Nathaniel Stampley as Colehouse Walker, easily handle their roles central to the story. Not only can these two carry the emotional depth of representing both hope for a better world and the trials of living in this one, but they give beautiful voice to the incredible music of Ragtime, with a score by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music is so central to this story and the story of Colehouse Walker’s character, and Thomas and Stampley’s voices, and the emotion they pour into them, as well as the quality of the Marriott’s pit orchestra, make the score truly soar. Kathy Voytko, who plays Mother, is to be lauded as well, as her portrayal has true depth. Once the matriarch is satisfied to watch her husband set sail, she goes on to be awakened by finally seeing firsthand the suffering of others, and fully realizing who she is and what she wants. As Mother, she is nuanced and complex, and draws audiences in.
Nick Bowling’s direction and Kenneth Roberson’s choreography are expert. Ragtime never misses a beat, as various successes and tragedies reach towering crescendoes under their guidance. There’s such a reality to the tragedy and triumphs and an authenticity in the storytelling that it’s nearly impossible to not be moved to tears at times. Ragtime was impactful before it got to the hands of the Marriott cast and crew, but with the numerous great performances, musical direction and choreography and the immersive experience of seeing it in the round, it becomes a real standout, and perhaps the best show I’ve seen there. Though it’s a long play, with a 2-hour-40-minute runtime, it never wears out its welcome, captivating you from the start. I recommend seeing this musical for so many reasons, not the least of which is to get a good look at how we’ve regressed in our treatment of immigrants of all races (and the dream of equality we should be fighting for) but also to enjoy a beautifully orchestrated show full of passionate performers.
Ragtime runs through March 18 and tickets start at $55.