Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: Hershey Theatre RAGTIME is All Too Timely

RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL is, like the original E.L. Doctorow novel, a huge, sweeping expanse of a brief period of time. It concentrates on three stories that ultimately intertwine: the story of the wealthy family in New Rochelle known only as Father, Mother, and company (though we do discover that The Little Boy is named Edgar); the story of the tragic romance of musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his lover Sarah; and the story of Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh and his young daughter. In its scope and its events, it's entirely possible that Terrence McNally's book, with lyrics and music by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, might be LES MISERABLES meets Nat Turner. There's a criminal, a lost love, a child, and a bloody revolution, this one courtesy of a Black American musician filled with rage and the assistance of Mother's brother, who knows explosives. Unlike LES MISERABLES however, period characters drop by to entertain and explain: Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Evelyn Nesbit, the "girl on the red velvet swing". Anarchist and union organizer Emma Goldman's present too, and so is Booker T. Washington, but unlike the other celebrities, their characters are involved with the others, rather than merely dropping in to make observations.

If it all sounds a bit bewildering, it's really not; it's an amazingly sharp tale, painfully timely, and its national tour is at Hershey Theatre through May 1. Though it is set in the early 20th century, in the midst of the "ragtime era," questions of excessive wealth and lack of concern with the poor, government and especially police relations with the Black community, the plight of immigrants, working poverty, and the like are unfortunately as immediate right now as they were then. If you don't feel like you're watching current events in period dress, with ragtime substituting for rap, you haven't been watching the news.

The national tour is hardly as lavish as the original thirteen-Tony-nomination Broadway production, but a moving full Model T Ford and on-stage fireworks aren't necessary to drive this story, which hurtles - yes, predictably, and yes, inevitably, into a combination of tragedies and triumphs. It's not the most original or surprising plot line, but there's character growth and development in most of the characters that is pleasant to see, even when tragic.

Chris Sams is a powerful, moving Coalhouse Walker, whose rise from touring musician to featured club performer, and his decline after Sarah's death into a radical fire-bomber leading a gang, is well worth watching in his hands. Matthew Curiano is an equally powerful Tateh, determined to find security for his child at whatever risk, and, unlike Walker, coming out ahead rather than tragically. Father is played by Troy Bruchwalski, who tackles an unforgiving role as the one-percenter whose two goals are to make money and to have adventure - he starts off by spending over a year on Admiral Peary's expedition to the North Pole, because he can, and he's surprised to come home to find that both the world and his home have changed greatly.

Part of that change is thanks to Mother's growth. Mother, beautifully performed by Kate Turner, running the family alone, begins to develop business skills and social independence, which she realizes she's longed for - and which she's unwilling to give up when Father finally returns. She also finds herself needing to provide direct charity to an abandoned child and the unfortunate girl - Sarah (Leslie Jackson) who abandoned him, only to discover that Coalhouse is the child's father. The reunion of Coalhouse and Sarah also cements an unusual bond between Coalhouse and Sarah and the wealthy family that brings a mixed bag of consequences to both the Black and the rich families.

Tateh and Mother and their children cross paths twice - first in the train station when Mother goes to the city to do business, while Tateh is moving to Boston to find work in a textile factory. They meet again, not clearly remembering each other from before, when the wealthy family goes to Atlantic City to escape Coalhouse's deadly rampage in New York, and Tateh has become "Baron Ashkenazy," a newly successful silent film director.

Donald Coggin is amusing to watch as Mother's Younger Brother, a man looking for something in his life. He believes it to be Evelyn Nesbitt, who spurns him, which leads him by accident to Emma Goldman, and from radical union agitation to secret support of Coalhouse's rebellion against the white police who let his car be destroyed and who then killed Sarah. While Mother has become the confidant of the Baron, an observer of life, which he hopes to put in his films, Younger Brother has become the confidant of a bringer of death, who can only be talked out of further destruction by a combination of Father and Booker T. Washington.

Coalhouse Walker is a Jean Valjean by way of Nat Turner, working not for God but for vengeance after the death of Sarah. Yet in this production, it's Kate Turner, who plays Mother, who's the most notable, as she spreads Mother's wings and lets her fly. Her heartfelt "Back to Before" (the main standard produced from the show) is a show stopper, even more so than Sarah's "Your Daddy's Son." But "Journey On" is also a remarkable song, as is Tateh's early "Shtetl Iz Amereke." Of the major production numbers, Evelyn Nesbitt's "Crime of the Century" is perhaps the most amusing of the large-scale pieces, though "The Night That Goldman Spoke At Union Square" is a particularly striking number.

It's a classic American musical, big, bold, and brassy - it even has a brass band on stage when the family travels to Atlantic City. It's a classic - and unfortunately contemporary - American story. The national tour is as a matter of convenience a far more stripped-down production than the original, which is an improvement; too much production glitz tends to dull the senses to plot and music, as 1980's English musical extravaganzas should have taught us. Here, without the real live-action fireworks, you can appreciate more of the songs than "Back to Before," though be sure to appreciate this performance of that song.

This is about as good as RAGTIME gets. It's not an unflawed story, and it's, as noted, a predictable one; you know how every scenario will end as soon as it's set up. But it's entertaining nonetheless, and extremely so, especially with the well-chosen cast. Worth seeing. At Hershey Theatre through May 1; visit for tickets and information.

Photo credits: Phoenix Entertainment

Gamut Theatres Young Acting Company and Rasika School of Dance to Present THE JUNGLE BOOK Photo
Opening March 31, The Jungle Book will debut at Gamut Theatre for one weekend only! After the success of last year's production of Panchatantra Tales, Gamut's Young Acting Company will partner again with Rasika School of Dance to present this classic story. This play is co-directed by Gamut's Executive Director, Melissa Nicholson, and Rasika's Founder and Artistic Director, Rachita Menon Nambiar. The show is performed by students ages 7-18, dancers and actors alike. 

Review: ANNE & EMMETT at Open Stage And Sankofa African American Theatre Company Photo
Each actor in this production brings passion, commitment, and authenticity to the stage. The raw emotions expressed by the actors in these scenes are heart-breaking and haunting. It is an important call to action to acknowledge the past so that we may move into a more hopeful and just future.

Opening Friday, Apr 7 on Second Stage at the Players Club of Swarthmore is Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, a comedy by Matt Cox, directed by Taylor Kellar.

The Kinsey Sicks Return To The Rrazz Room With DRAG QUEEN STORYTIME GONE WILD This April Photo
The Rrazz Room Presents returns to New Hope, PA. on Saturday, April 8 at 8:00 pm, with America's favorite and only dragapella quartet- the Kinsey Sicks in Drag Queen Storytime Gone WILD! at New Hope Inn & Suites, 6426 Lower York Road, New Hope, PA 18938.

From This Author - Marakay Rogers

 America's most uncoordinated childhood ballet and tap student before discovering that her talents were music and writing, Marakay Rogers finally traded in her violin for law school when she r... (read more about this author)

Review: ILLUMINATION Shines Bright at PrimaReview: ILLUMINATION Shines Bright at Prima
December 10, 2022

Smart, stylish, sexy, intelligent. The perfect date? Yes, especially at Prima's delicious new Christmas event. A dark room illuminated with candles, a grand piano, and singers and dancers.

Review: HERE COMES THE SUN Is Far More Than All Right at PrimaReview: HERE COMES THE SUN Is Far More Than All Right at Prima
October 21, 2022

Lancaster’s Prima Theatre puts on a show that will send JoJo looking for Pennsylvania grass

Run - or Creep or Crawl - to Keystone Theatrics' THE ADDAMS FAMILY at AllenberryRun - or Creep or Crawl - to Keystone Theatrics' THE ADDAMS FAMILY at Allenberry
October 21, 2022

Wednesday Addams is in love with an ordinary guy, and now he has to face the family. Will anyone survive?

Review: THE WIZARD OF OZ at Keystone Theatrics At Allenberry PlayhouseReview: THE WIZARD OF OZ at Keystone Theatrics At Allenberry Playhouse
August 8, 2022

When Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg put THE WIZARD OF OZ together, they knew they had a good thing. So did the studio. And audiences knew it, too. There's still a crowd that will show for any public performance of the movie, especially if it's a sing-along. It's this popularity that turned the movie into a stage musical, to keep the magic going.

Review: THE MUSIC OF QUEEN+JOURNEY at Prima TheatreReview: THE MUSIC OF QUEEN+JOURNEY at Prima Theatre
June 27, 2022

What did our critic think of THE MUSIC OF QUEEN+JOURNEY at Prima Theatre? It's true that Prima Theatre's own music shows can be its best productions. This one, THE MUSIC OF QUEEN+JOURNEY, is no exception to that rule. This was performed outdoors in 3021; now, post-pandemic, it comes to Prima's stage, tuneful all the way. Executive Artistic Producer Mitch Nugent directs this delightful musical mayhem for a warm summer evening with evident pleasure. Your pleasure will be equally evident.