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BWW Reviews: Oakbrook Terrace Produces a Wonderful, World-Class RAGTIME

Is "Ragtime" the Great American Musical? Certainly a grand argument in favor of that statement is now on display at the Drury Lane Theatre in Chicago's western suburb of Oakbrook Terrace, where one of the strongest home-grown musical productions in recent memory very nearly floored the opening night audience this past Wednesday night. The cheer that went up from the crowd at the end of the first act sounded like the one that greets well-known rock stars at gritty, mid-size downtown venues.

And I suspect that local critics will be falling all over themselves in the next few days in search of the right superlatives to heap upon this ambitious, emotionally moving, visually stunning and thought provoking production of this fine piece of inventive musical theater writing. At the end of the show, the vision of a happy, unified America, a family by choice, beamed out across the orchestra pit toward me. And I thought, "This is what the American musical theater is capable of doing. But it so rarely does all of this, all at once." Let me be completely clear: "Ragtime" is absolutely stunning.

The show, which ran from 1998-2000 on Broadway (winning three Tony Awards), launched the renovated Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, in Chicago and was recently the first musical of the 1990s to be revived on Broadway. It is without a doubt the masterwork of composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and bookwriter Terrence McNally. It is unified, tragic, exhilarating, melodic, stirring and special. Its story of race and class relationships one hundred years ago could be ripped from today's headlines. It is state-of-the-art in its field. And what a privilege it is to see it like this! 

In fact, the production might as well be on Broadway, in London, or in any high quality theater anywhere in the world. With the right economy and the right publicity, it could tour for years. I'm telling you, the cast looks and acts exactly as these characters would. Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell's pacing and emphasis seem just right. She and her design team, led by the jaw-dropping backdrop projections of New York-based Sage Marie Carter, created crisp, photo-clear and memorable moments of dramatic theater that etch themselves into the audience's mind.

Drury Lane favorite Jesse Klug's lighting seems to define not only space, but time itself. Kevin Depinet's set (yes, there's a medium-sized elevator) and the properties of Michelle N. Warner are spare only in the sense that there is absolutely no clutter--every piece is there for a reason, populating the stage space above and below as well as on the wooden Americana deck itself. Santo Loquasto's costumes (from the 1998 original Broadway production directed by Chicagoan Frank Galati, and augmented here with additional pieces by Brenda Winstead and lovely wigs from Kaity Licina) perfectly define the archetypal fictional characters we come to know, and clearly evoke the historical figures that popular the show and its E. L. Doctorow source novel. 

Sound design by Garth Helm and Ray Nardelli allows the great-sounding cast to be heard clear as a bell, and the nine-piece orchestra of music director Roberta Duchak and conductor Ben Johnson plays apparently new orchestrations by Carey Deadman and John Kornegay with hardly a break at all in the proceedings. 

And then there's that much-touted 33-member cast, led by Quentin Earl Darrington as Negro musician-turned-vigilante Coalhouse Walker, Jr.  They all look simply superb, and the choral numbers sound exceptional. Darrington, who played the same role in the just-shuttered Broadway revival, is a handsome, dark and muscular man who seems as erudite and refined as his character. His singing is only slightly less impressive than the focus, passion and refinement of his acting. He knows exactly what he is doing up there, and is a pleasure to watch. 

Joining Darrington in Oakbrook Terrace from the Broadway revival is Valisia LeKae as Sarah, whose beauty and tragic knack for bad decisions drives much of the show's dramatic action. Lekae has a beautiful soprano voice, which she uses to lovely effect during "Your Daddy's Son" and, especially, "Sarah Brown Eyes." Her co-star overbalanced her a bit on opening night during one of the show's few "stand-out" numbers, "The Wheels of a Dream." 

Another strong force of action in the production is Cory Goodrich as Mother. Her warmth, intelligence and gradually modulated strength of will are moving and delightful. After creating electricity with the Tateh of Mark David Kaplan (the linchpin of the show's third storyline) by touching his shoulder during "Our Children," she sends the show soaring with the heart-clutching climax of "Back to Before," a moment not soon forgotten. And, immediately after the show's fantastic and creative opening sequence, Goodrich, Kaplan and Larry Adams as Father deliver the song "Journey On" with such epic wonder, that I was once again floored by the marvel of the number's creation, even as I was thrilled by the newness of its realization here. 

Max Quinlan (who appeared as a child in the Oriental Theatre production over a decade ago) has grown up into the role of Mother's Younger Brother, looking more mature than one would think (must be the glasses) and growing appropriately passionate as he learns to find resonance in the words of Emma Goldman (Catherine Lord--accent-prone, feisty but beautiful). They deliver one of the show's most uniquely conceived numbers, "He Wanted to Say," with particular aplomb. As Grandfather, Robert Hildreth gets a laugh on arguably every single line of dialogue he utters. Summer Naomi Smart shows why she has won Jeff Awards in both of the last two seasons, every time she sings with her perfectly placed high belt, contemporary Broadway-pop voice (oh, and she looks fantastic, too!). 

Most of the cast get moments to shine in some way, and they should all be extremely satisfied with the result of their work. Melody Betts's singing, Brandon Koller and Karen Burthwright's dancing, James Earl Jones II's acting, all three children (they are double cast with three others), the quick costume and character changes, the constantly moving set pieces, performers staying in the tightly focused pools of light, catching the conductor's hand with the corner of their eye--I could go on, really I could. Not only was I proud of what the American Musical Theater is capable of doing, I was proud of what Chicago's musical theater community has accomplished. 

This is material challenging for some audiences to handle, and it's neither toe-tappy nor overly high-falutin.' But there is so much good and right here, that the gods of musical theater must be smiling big time on Oakbrook Terrace this spring. Many theaters would never attempt to produce such an economically challenging, musically diverse, physically and emotionally complex show. Most of them would never come close to achieving what is on view now through May 23, 2010 at the Drury Lane. 

This one will be talked about for years around here. You don't want to be left out of a conversation with your friends, a conversation with the soul of America, or a conversation with your own innermost self. All this, plus a tune or two to hum on the train. This is what the American Musical Theater is capable of doing. Experience it, through the wonder that is "Ragtime." 

"Ragtime" is now playing Wednesday through Sundays at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. Tickets are $31-$45. For reservations phone 630-530-0111 or visit   

Photo Credit: Brett Beiner

Photos (top to bottom): Quentin Earl Darrington; Larry Adams and Cory Goodrich; the ensemble; Mark David Kaplan; Valisia LeKae; Summer Naomi Smart; the company.

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From This Author Paul W. Thompson

Paul W. Thompson, a contributor to since 2007, is a Chicago-based singer, actor, musical director, pianist, vocal coach, composer and commentator. His career as (read more...)