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Marriott Theatre’s resplendent ‘Ragtime’ sonorously delivers a master class in historical sociology and a plea for compassion

...This IS my review of Director Nick Bowling‘s radiant production of 1998’s multi-Tony-winning Ragtime playing at Lincolnshire’s Marriott theatre through March 18. Because the very best live theatre is about the take-aways, those elements of a near-perfect show that remain with audience members for days, weeks, sometimes a lifetime.

Anyone who takes in Bowling’s resplendent focus on privilege, class, race, immigration and unfair justice in the early 1900s but fails to see their parallels to our society today is clearly devoid of brain and/or heart. To wit, an early Act 1 scene features two ships crossing off the coast of New York. Admiral Peary on the outbound vessel of American explorers says about the incoming, “They’re called rag ships. Immigrants from every cesspool in Western and Eastern Europe.”

He might as well have said, “Shithole.”

Yes, this Ragtime is no ordinary trip to the theatre. Audiences enter Marriott’s in-the-round setting expecting a mere musical; instead, they’re given a pitch perfect master class in historical sociology and, most of them being white and privileged like me, a mirror to encourage (I say require) a little self reflection.

To give that notion some musical theatre capital, it’s helpful to know that if Bowling does anything better than envisioning, it’s casting. Ragtime‘s enormous ensemble of nearly 30 are, first and foremost, magnificent singers who flawlessly work their way through the gorgeous Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrnns (lyrics) Ragtime music-infused and ballad-laden songbook.

Terrence McNally‘s book based on E. L. Doctorow‘s 1975 novel of the same name tells the story of three groups in the first decade of the 20th century New York: White, upper-class suburbanites of New Rochelle, especially the matriarch of one family, “Mother;” African Americans in Harlem, chiefly Ragtime pianist “Coalhouse Walker Jr.;” and Eastern European immigrants, characterized by Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. Interspersed in the intermingled story of these three groups are historical figures including Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Peary, Emma Goldman and others. A full synopsis (spoilers included) may be read here.

While each member of this outstanding cast deserves every accolade in a writer’s lexicon, any top-notch production of Ragtime rests on the strength of its leads.

Jeff winner Nathanial Stampley makes his third recent Marriott lead appearance (Man of La Mancha and The Bridges of Madison County are the others) wrapped around a Broadway stint in The Color Purple. There is no stronger leading man on America’s stages today, and musical theatre aficionados should flock to Marriott if only to see him. Perfectly cast as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Stampley and the gorgeous, talented Katherine Thomas as Sarah lead this entire production, never sounding better than in the show’s signature song, “Wheels of a Dream,” the mere recollection of which is literally spine-tingling.

Lovely Kathy Voytko, who starred opposite Stampley in Marriott’s Bridges, is magnificent as Mother, a woman of talent and conviction, knowingly ahead of her time and clever in her ability to create her life (and move the show’s plot). So, too, does Benjamin Magnuson brilliantly sparkle as the Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh. Moving his character from despair to success with humor, wit and heartfelt kindness (along with a terrific character singing voice), Magnuson punctuates every scene he’s in.

Adam Monley, Will Mobley, Terry Hamilton, Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Larry Adams, Michelle Lauto, James Earl Jones II, Christina Hall, Elizabeth Telford… the rest of this powerhouse cast is filled with once and future leads. And with one signature solo, Keirsten Hodgens literally brings down the house as Sarah’s friend. The children in the cast, led by Patrick Scott McDermott on opening night, are likewise superb.

Backstage, Theresa Ham‘s costumes are period perfect and aristocratically gorgeous; Jeffrey D. Kmiec‘s spartan set is whimsically enhanced by piano pieces hanging from the rafters; Sally Zack‘s props include one very cool, drivable Model T. While Ragtime is not a dance heavy show, Kenneth L. Roberson‘s terrific choreography is particularly shown off by the gentlemen in “Gettin’ Ready Rag.

All this is to say, sincere patrons of musical theatre need to mark a date on their calendars before March 18 and buy tickets to see this truly magnificent, gut-wrenching, eye-opening Ragtime.

I can think of no better vehicle with which we might begin better sharing our humanity with others.