BWW Review: RAGTIME at Ford's Theatre is Rapturous

BWW Review: RAGTIME at Ford's Theatre is Rapturous

If you go to see RAGTIME at the historic Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC., the mega musical by the Tony-winning composing team of Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (Music) with the book by Terrence McNally (based on the novel by E.L.Doctorow), one has to thank the Canadian impresario Garth H. Drabinsky. This was his dream which first opened in Toronto in September, 1996, and opened on Broadway January 18, 1998. Drabinsky did everything "big". I remember being invited to an event in Washington, DC for Tour Group Leaders. He brought down members of the Broadway cast, gave out promotional CDs and RAGTIME key rings.

He rebuilt two Broadway theaters for RAGTIME combining them into the gorgeous Ford Center for the Performing Arts (now the Lyric Theatre) using the historical parts of the two theaters, had a historic $11 million production which included a Model T. Ford than actually ran. (What a coincidence it's now at the historic Ford's in DC.) The Tony Awards in 1998 went to RAGTIME for Best Book, Best Score, Best Orchestrations, and to Audra McDonald for Best Featured Actress. So naturally, one would think it would have won for Best Musical except for a small show literally across the street, THE LION KING, which won the honor. I still think RAGTIME was robbed.

I truly love this show and RAGTIME in its current rendition is under the very capable hands of Director Peter Flynn who has made it known that he wanted a production filled with actors from the Baltimore/Washington area. And when you see this impeccable masterpiece you will be astonished at the talent we have in this area. The acting, the singing, the dancing is just plain spectacular. Add to this the capable and imaginative designers, Michael Bobbitt (Choreography), Milagros Ponce de Leon (Scenic Design), Wade Laboissonniere (Costume Design), Rui Rita (Lighting Design), David Budries (Sound Design), Clint Allen (Projection Design), and Anne Nesmith (Hair and Make-Up Design) and you have a winning team.

The talented Christopher Youstra (Music Director and Vocal Arranger) leads a superb orchestra located on level two of the three level erector set which features movable staircases. Most of the musicians wear straw hats to keep in the dress of 1902 where the events take place. Youstra sometimes joins the cast with his accordion. They are a talented group: Victor Simonson (Keyboard II), Lee Lachman (Reeds), Fred Irby III (Trumpet/Flugelhorn), Joe Jackson (Trombone), Andrea Vercoe (Violin), Yusef Chisholm (Bass/Tuba), Gerry Kunkel (Guitar/Banjo), and Danny Villanueva (Drums/Percussion). Special kudos to Kim Scharnberg who did the marvelous orchestrations.

The original Broadway cast had an All-Star cast: Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie, Peter Friedman, and Mark Jacoby. This cast is no less All-Star!!! They are all simply incredible.

The show tells the story of three families: a well-to-do upper White family from New Rochelle where "Father" makes patriotic memorabilia and fireworks, his wife "Mother", her younger brother, little boy, and Grandfather: James Konicek, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Gregory Maheu, Henry Baratz (shared with Holden Browne) and Christopher Bloch.

Leading the Jewish immigrants hailing from Latvia is Tateh and his young daughter: Jonathan Atkinson and Kylee Gerace (shared with Dulcie Pham).

The show centers on pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his love Sarah played by Kevin McAllister and Nova Y. Payton.

You will see a plethora of historical figures of the era including Emma Goldman (Rayanne Gonzales), the "girl on the swing" Evelyn Nesbit (Justine "Icy" Moral), Harry Houdini ( Christopher Mueller), Booker T. Washington (Jefferson A. Russell), Harry K. Thaw and Admiral Perry (Stephen F. Schmidt), Henry Ford (John Leslie Wolfe), and Stanford White (Elan Zafir), the famous architect of Penn Station which is currently the subject of a possible renovation back to its original glory.

The talented ensemble is made up of Maria Egler, Eben K. Logan, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Ines Nassara, Rayshun LaMarr Purfoy, Karen Vincent, and Tobias Young.

Young Coalhouse Walker III is shared between Mya King-Aamdar (with Rubin B. Singleton IV).

The show opens with the three different ethnic groups telling their own stories. "Father" talks about life where there are "no Negros and no immigrants". He heads off with Admiral Perry to discover the North Pole and when he is introduced to an African-American explorer Mathew Henson, he refuses to shake Henson's hand. Henson by the way hails from Maryland and has both a middle school in Charles County and an elementary school in Baltimore named for him.

The Jewish immigrant Tateh is overprotective of his daughter and sometimes has her tied to him with a rope scared of her being kidnapped. He hopes to make a living make silhouettes out of paper and will later become a film director. Wait till you see the wonderful projections of Clint Allen of his silhouettes. (I highly recommend the CD which has silhouettes on the cover).

The African-American experience focuses on a Harlem ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. He is so successful he owns a Model T Ford. His girlfriend Sarah and his child end up in New Rochelle, NY and his loving relationship with Sarah takes a sad turn at the end of Act I. What occurs there is the major focus of the musical. Coalhouse's personality changes drastically from a loving musician to one who seeks revenge for actions taken against him and Sarah.

There are so many side stories that I do not want to ruin the surprise.

I just loved the baseball inspired number at the Polo Grounds "What a Game" joining other musicals like DAMN YANKEES, FALSETTOS, and even DEAR EVAN HANSON that have songs that deal with baseball.

There are so many wonderful and memorable melodies from ballads "Wheels of a Dream" by the gorgeous baritone of McAllister and the heart-warming Payton, to the lovely duet "Our Children" by Atkinson and Olivera, to the anthem-like "He Wanted to Say" by Gonzales, to the moving "Till We Reach That Day" by Curry, to the ragtime inspired "Gettin' Ready Rag", and finally "Make Them Hear You" by McAllister.

This is just plain remarkable from top to bottom.

I must admit it was different to watch "Wheels of a Dream" seeing the show in Washington, DC after eight years of the Obama administration.

Notice at the end of the performance the cast is in modern dress as if stating the problems of 1902 are still with us today.

The theater offers the following:

RAGTIME Meet and Mingle: April 15 following the 7:30 p.m. performance.

RAGTIME Under 35 Night April 21 and May 19 following the 7:30 performance when there are discounted tickets and enjoy complimentary beer or wine after the show. Tickets must be purchased in advance at www.fords.org using promo code UNDER35. One must show ID at the box office once arriving at the theatre. Limit of six per person.

Interfaith Night: may 2 at 7:30 p.m. Following the performance there will be discussion about the roles of faith and music in the stories explored in RAGTIME. Special $25 tickets are available through the Group Sales office. Email groups@fords.org or call 800-899-2367 for information.

RAGTIME runs until May 20, 2017. For tickets call 888-616-0270 or visit www.fords.org. Do not miss it.

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg

cgshubow@broadwayworld.com

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