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Marriott's stunning 'Ragtime' finds today's truths in historical musical

It took two decades for the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire to tackle "Ragtime." But director Nick Bowling's superlative staging of the epic 1998 Broadway musical proves the wait was well worth it.

Bowling resisted the temptation to update this Tony Award-winning musical, even though there are many hard-hitting dramatic situations in Terrence McNally's script and the score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that can make "Ragtime" feel like it was written yesterday. In fact, a 2012 London production of "Ragtime" came in for much criticism when it was reset in an imagined post-apocalyptic America.

Instead, Bowling finds subtle ways to comment on contemporary events while keeping "Ragtime" -- featuring the interwoven stories of a Harlem musician, a Jewish immigrant and an upper-class white mother -- firmly rooted in the early 1900s. This historical prism, staying true to author E.L. Doctorow's 1975 source novel, masterfully looks back in time to reflect on contemporary American debates over race relations, immigration, women's rights and labor fights.

For Marriott's "Ragtime," audiences are greeted by an installation of ripped-apart pianos suspended around the stage in a likely nod to British conceptual artist Cornelia Parker. She has notoriously blown up structures and reassembled them as if in mid-explosion, and these hovering piano pieces by scenic designer Jeff Kmiec prove to be a clever visual foreshadowing of a "Ragtime" plot point.

Atop Kmiec's speedily deployed hydraulic platform lifts, another one of Bowling's ingenious staging salvos hits in the musical's opening title number. Most of the show's historical and fictional characters are introduced in third person to match the style of the novel, but then Bowling deliberately makes everything too crowded.

An unfair game unfolds as the musical's major groups of wealthy whites, African-Americans and immigrants jostle for space, with some pushed to the periphery.

Simple and symbolic staging touches like this enrich "Ragtime." Bowling and his designers -- including Theresa Ham on the gorgeous costumes and Jesse Klug on the skillfully synchronized lighting -- deserve praise for the production's clear and concise storytelling.

The Marriott production is also blessed with an amazing company of actor/singers. The performers do full vocal justice to the musical's catchy and anthem-filled period score. They also revel in the nuanced intimacy afforded by the Marriott's cozy in-the-round space.

Kathy Voytko is very affecting as Mother, a conscience-driven character who tentatively pushes against societal boundaries for wealthy women of the era. She's in stark contrast to her husband, Adam Monley as Father, who angrily resists change. Meanwhile, Mother's Younger Brother (Will Mobley) veers toward a more extreme sociopolitical awakening as the character known as Little Boy (Patrick Scott McDermott) observes everything with wise-beyond-his-years eyes.

Benjamin Magnuson makes for an impassioned Tatah, a Jewish widower immigrant from Latvia who initially faces assimilation struggles while caring for his young daughter (Paula Hlava).

Particularly heartbreaking are Nathaniel Stampley as the ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and Katherine Thomas as his fiancee, Sarah. It's almost cruel that the two vocally soar on the optimistic anthem "The Wheels of a Dream" before their characters' hopes for the future come crashing down.

"The Wheels of a Dream" is reprised at the end, but Bowling throws in a wrench to any potential uplift by realistically questioning the characters' future in the final tableau. The "happy" conclusion gets upended by a visitor that the show's authors originally chose to ignore. But Bowling's decision to include him is just another powerful way for the ever-relevant "Ragtime" to comment on the state of American politics and society today.