Talk about a phenomenal comeback. Music Theater Works is back on stage with a remarkable production of ‘Ragtime’, the 1996 musical, adapted by Terrence McNally from the superb novel EL Doctorow, and brought to life by a delightful and cross-cultural score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens who don’t. has never received all the applause and attention it deserves.
The production also marks a giant leap in the long history of Music Theater Works. Founded in 1980, it has produced a host of classic musicals, new musicals and operettas on the Cahn Auditorium stage in Evanston, with immense style (and very limited print runs). But now, under the direction of Kyle A. Dougan, he has taken fairly extensive control of Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts and has already announced a full roster of productions for its 2022 season.
Set in the decade before World War I, “Ragtime” examines the crossed lives of people from three distinct sectors of American life: a wealthy white family living in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, whose father goes far away- launched adventures leaving his wife bound in tradition to suddenly taste freedom; a very gifted and successful black ragtime musician in Harlem who tries to win back the woman he loves but is devastated by a great racially motivated injustice; and a Jewish immigrant / artist (and his young daughter), right next to the ship from Latvia, whose dreams of success don’t sync with bitter reality until many years after arriving.
Elaborating the story (in which fiction meets non-fiction) are a number of famous figures of the period: Booker T. Washington, the black educator and speaker; Harry Houdini, the escape artist; Emma Goldman, feminist activist and political anarchist; Evelyn Nesbitt, the vaudeville star catapulted to fame by a deadly love triangle; and the capitalist icons JP Morgan and Henry Ford.
There are a lot of great performances and bugle ensemble vocals in this production. But it’s Curtis Bannister, as ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., who steals the show – a triple threat with his formidable opera voice, expertly tempered dramatic intensity and superb dance technique.
Other intense performances include Lydia Burke as Sarah, the mother of the tragically ending Coalhouse child; Kelly Britt as a stylish suburban mother, wife and mother with a golden voice that is gradually released in different ways; Dan Gold as Tateh, the paper-cut artist who suffers the many agonies and indignities of an impoverished immigrant, but ultimately realizes his dream; Korey White, as the passionate but deeply rational Booker T. Washington; Michelle Owens as the irrepressible Emma Goldman and Ryan Dooley as the mother’s younger brother, who has a soft spot for Evelyn Nesbitt (Laura Sportiello), as well as a knowledge of explosives and a subtle but dangerous sense of rabies. The trio of children (Hogan Porter, Omi Lichtenstein and Brady Seth Barton) is also ideally chosen.
The production’s expert 18-piece orchestra does full justice to the great beauty, immense emotional weight, stylistic variety and characteristic quality of the score. And the sets by Sotirios Livaditis, with everything from the clever use of a dollhouse to several large metal staircases on wheels that easily transform to suggest everything from a domestic scene to a baseball stadium (with a Ford Full-size Model-T which is critically important to the story), are enhanced by lighting by Andrew Myer, sound design by Jonesy Jones and costumes by Rachel Sypniewski.
This is a massive production, and Flaster’s ability to weave his many powerful themes and distinctive characters into perfect cohesion is extremely impressive. It’s a musical that sets the highest standards on every level.
âRagtimeâ lasts until November 9, but deserves a much longer life (perhaps with a comeback on another stage). For tickets visit MusicTheaterWorks.com or call (847) 673-6300.
To note: Next stop at Music Theater Works will be “Billy Elliott, The Musical” by Elton John (December 23, 2021 – January 7, 2022). Next comes its full 2022 season which will include: âLa Cage Aux Follesâ (March 10-April 13); “Disney’s Little Mermaid” (June 2 June 26); âZorro, The Musicalâ (August 11-August 21), in association with the dance company Ensemble Espanol from Chicago and with music from the Gipsy Kings; “Camelot” (Oct. 20 – Nov. 13); and âIrving Berlin’s White Christmasâ (December 15-January 1).
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