‘Ragtime’ sings of tumultuous early 1900s
Travel back in time with Signature Theatre’s outstanding production of Ragtime, superbly directed by Matthew Gardiner. The musical, based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, narrates the lives of three different families in the early 1900s and the problems each family faces.
One large upper-class family must adapt to the enormous social changes taking place around them. The members of this family are identified only by their titles: Mother, Father, Mother’s Younger Brother, etc.
The second, smaller family consists of Tateh (Yiddish for father) and his Little Girl, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who struggle to succeed in turn-of-the-century America.
Finally, there is the story of ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., and the tragic story of his beloved Sarah. Both of them encounter the intense racism of the era.
This third story is modeled in part after Heinrich von Kleist’s classic novella “Michael Kohlhaas,” in which the eponymous character “sets about the business of revenge.” Indeed, the thirst for revenge and the destruction it can bring becomes a dominant theme in the second half of the musical.
Historical figures in cameos
Historical personages such as Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, President McKinley, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini and socialite Evelyn Nesbit interact with the fictional characters of Ragtime, providing a portrait of early 20th-century America.
In the production, ragtime music is not simply the music in vogue but a symbol of the broad changes taking place in family roles and class. The music is catchy, but often in a minor key, representing the friction brought about by these changes.
The standout actor is Nkrumah Gatling, who plays Coalhouse in an emotive way as he experiences love, hope, joy, success, failure and loss. His performance leads the audience to experience these emotions vicariously.
Bobby Smith as Tateh also seems not merely to act but to live his part, bringing the audience to the heights of his enthusiasm for a new life in America, and later to despair when the American dream seems unattainable.
Jake Loewenthal imbues Mother’s Younger Brother with a believable character transformation from a man with no ideas to a terrorist with frighteningly misguided actions.
In this very somber production, a fun character emerges in the person of Evelyn Nesbit, portrayed coquettishly and memorably by Maria Rizzo.
Both serious and fun at the same time, Dani Staller plays her character of Emma Goldman with vivacity and exuberance.
Strong musical performances
Ragtime has such an involved plot with heady historical themes that at times it is easy to forget this is a musical. Not to worry; that side of the show is also executed beautifully by the cast and musicians.
The company is in perfect rhythm and harmony for the titular song “Ragtime.” Mario Rizzo and Edward L. Simon perform a lovely duet as Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini in “Atlantic City.” Teal Wicks, as Mother, performs “What Kind of Woman?” poignantly and in magnificent voice; her strong performance brings much cohesion to the show. Bill English as Father has his moment in singing “What a Game” at a baseball game while noticing social change around him.
The most memorable singing occurred with Awa Sal Secka as Sarah in “You Daddy’s Son,” and then in her duet with Nkrumah Gatling as Coalhouse in “Wheels of a Dream.”
The orchestra, assigned to bring ragtime back to life and conducted exquisitely by Jon Kalbfleisch, was superb. Ashleigh King’s choreography and Erik Teague’s costume design gave further period authenticity to the show.
Ragtime is wonderful, thoughtful entertainment with much to teach us about U.S. history, but this show is not recommended for young children.
With a performance time of approximately three hours, including one 15-minute intermission, Ragtime runs Tuesday through Sunday evenings, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays, through January 7, 2024.
Tickets range from $68 to $140 depending on seat location and performance. Tickets are 25% off for all first responders, frontline workers, veterans and educators.
Signature Theatre is located at 4200 Campbell Ave., in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, visit sigtheatre.org or call the box office at (703) 820-9771.