BWW Review: RAGTIME at Ford's Theatre
A widowed immigrant heads to America with ill-fated hope of welcome and success. An educated black musician seeks forgiveness from his lost love and justice for crimes against his family. A wealthy, sheltered woman finds her bubbled world changing with the local climate.
We have heard stories along these lines countless times over the past several months, and the Ford's Theatre timely production of RAGTIME hits all of their painful, resonant themes across multiple notes. DC audiences, this is the show we need right now.
Set in the early 1900's, RAGTIME, written by Terrence McNally with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, constructs multiple stories of social justice, false freedom and what the American dream can become. Using complex, exhaustive music and a plethora of heart wrenching, full volume songs, RAGTIME shows three families each falling apart as the nation and its industry and culture continue to build.
The story unfolds in a slightly disjointed, non-linear fashion, shifting to its main characters sporadically as they all intertwine. Numbers like "What a Game", "Crime of the Century" and "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc" give much needed breathers amidst gut punch numbers like "Back to Before" and "Your Daddy's Son".
Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce De Léon's multi-level set creates a vision of class difference and American industrialism. As those below them in status or knowledge scrape by, figureheads like Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington and JP Morgan speak from above, heightening the immense distance between them. It's a visually interesting set, even if it occasionally constricts the view of those performing on it.
Director Peter Flynn keeps his cast and the show constantly moving. In a trend I'm noticing across several DC theatres, actors mill about in the background even if not in the scene, as if to observe or show a constant presence. The scaffolding also serves as a screen, displaying snow, small films or intense fire. The costumed band performs from the second level, which, while it looks interesting, at times felt oppressive in volume.
What a cast this is. Reprising the role that earned him a Helen Hayes award, Kevin McAllister gives his whole heart and energy as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Nova Y. Payton, fresh off the successful CAROLINE, OR CHANGE at Round House Theatre, delivers a beautiful, sweet innocence as the shy, questioning Sarah. You instantly love her, and I will happily watch the both of them in as many productions as are possible.
Jonathan Atkinson's emotional journey as Tateh is well demonstrated, and he is engaging to watch even as part of the background action. His voice is a force, and his character's determination pulls at all the emotions this current political climate has evoked. Felicia Curry's performance in "Til We Reach that Day" soared from the start, stealing the stage.
There were times when everything felt a bit loud. Accents occasionally dipped, and the ending, which included cast members in modern clothes, didn't necessarily all pull together for me. That being said, I definitely recommend seeing RAGTIME. It will engage you, it will hopefully motivate you, and it will open your eyes to perspectives across multiple types of people, both of the present and the past.
As the show finished, the cast came together, and the final notes were belted with all of what they had left, one thing was very clear. There was passion, there was fear, and somewhere in there, there was the projected hope that maybe, someday, the themes won't have to be illustrated as necessarily as now.
RAGTME continues at Ford's Theatre through May 20th. For more information on the show or to purchase tickets, visit the production page. The runtime is about 2 hours and 45 minutes. Photo credit: Carol Rosegg