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Highly Recommended! ‘Ragtime’ remains a timeless tale of the good, the bad and the power of hope


In the first act finale of the musical “Ragtime,” there’s a funeral that unleashes a torrent of music that is simultaneously shattering and uplifting. Anchored by soaring, gospel-tinged vocals, “Till We Reach That Day” fills the Marriott Lincolnshire Theatre with a power and a glory of terrible beauty.

The funeral is for a person of color, and as rage and defiance explodes from the song’s broken heart, you may well find a tragic contemporary litany scrolling through your mind. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Tamil Rice. Amadou Diallo. Emmett Till. The list goes endlessly, brutally on. Anchored by the magnificent vocals of soloist Keirsten Hodgens, the 1908 funeral of “Ragtime” screams with urgency. In director Nick Bowling’s beautifully rendered production, the musical is equal parts powerful storytelling, timeliness and achingly gorgeous harmonies.

Based on E. L. Doctorow’s epic page-turner of a historical novel, “Ragtime” (with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Michael Flaherty and a book by Terrance McNally) follows the lives of three very different families.

Well-off and white we have Mother (Kathy Voytko) and Father (Adam Monley) who live serenely in New Rochelle, New York, along with their Little Boy (Patrick Scott McDermott), Grandfather (Terry Hamilton) and Mother’s Younger Brother (Will Mobley). Mother and father’s gently-tinted world of parasols and tennis balls and lazy afternoons is upended when Mother finds an abandoned black baby in the garden.

While Father (an “amateur explorer”) is off on one of his periodic adventures, Mother takes in both the child and his frightened, overwhelmed mother Sarah (Katherine Thomas.) Before long, the baby’s father Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Nathaniel Stampley) arrives, determined to atone for his past sins and marry Sarah.

“Ragtime” also follows the immigrant Tateh (Benjamin Magnuson), who arrives with his daughter, Little Girl (Paula Hlava), determined to find the American Dream.

As the lives of all three families become intertwined, “Ragtime” inserts real figures from history: Emma Goldman (Christina Hall), Booker T. Washington (Jonathan Butler DuPlessis), Harry Houdini (Alexander Aguilar), vaudeville vixen Evelyn Nesbit (Michelle Lauto), North Pole explorers Admiral Perry (Larry Adams) and Matthew Henson (James Earl Jones II) all show up.

At the heart of the story is Coalhouse’s quest for decency and respect, Tateh’s determination to find success in his new home, and Mother’s transformation from dutiful housewife to strong-minded, independent woman. Like Doctorow’s novel, the musical is exquisitely plotted, the intricate strands of each story interlocking with the grace and symmetry of a spider web.

Bowling’s cast is packed with standouts. As Mother, Voytko has a warmth that defines her voice and her presence. The anthemic “Back to Before” – a song about the way life can turn you into a person you never expected – packs an emotional wallop. Stampley’s Coalhouse is a powerhouse from start to finish, head-to-toe. He thunders through the soliloquy that tops the second half of the production, capturing a lifetime of righteous anger. Thomas’ Sarah transforms from a woman who is too frightened to hold her head up into a figure of grace and maternal strength. When she duets with Coalhouse in “Wheels of a Dream,” it’s the sound of hope and optimism set to music.

Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set puts an intriguing, literal spin on the lyrics’ refrain of nation in the throes of change. The new music symbolizes a country undergoing the seismic shifts wrought by the Industrial Revolution, the Great Migration and the vast numbers of immigrants arriving from distant shores. Above the stage, Kmiec’s has hung pieces of pianos – keyboards, frames and strings suspended alongside pieces of sheet music. It’s an innovative illustration upheaval, as visualized by musical instruments.

It’s been a century since ragtime reigned, Evelyn Nesbit transfixed vaudeville and Houdini showed the world that escape is never impossible. At the Marriott, the story rings strong, true and timeless.