Talk about a phenomenal comeback. Music Theater Works has returned to the live stage with a remarkable production of “Ragtime,” the 1996 musical, adapted by Terrence McNally from the superb E.L. Doctorow novel, and driven by a ravishing, culture-crossing score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens that has never received all the plaudits and attention it deserves.
The production also marks a giant step in Music Theater Works’ long history. Founded in 1980, it has produced a slew of classic musicals, new musicals and operettas on the stage of Evanston’s Cahn Auditorium, and done so with immense style (and very limited runs). But now, under the leadership of Kyle A. Dougan, it has taken quite extensive command 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” homes in on the intersecting lives of people from three distinct sectors of American life: A wealthy white family that lives in the New York suburb of New Rochelle, whose father goes off on far-flung adventures leaving his tradition-bound wife 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 undone by a great racially-motivated injustice; and a Jewish immigrant/artist (and his young daughter), just off the boat from Latvia, whose dreams of success do not synch with bitter reality until many years after his arrival.
Framing the story (in which fiction meets non-fiction) are a number of famous figures of the period: Booker T. Washington, the Black educator and orator; Harry Houdini, the escape artist; Emma Goldman, the feminist activist and political anarchist; Evelyn Nesbitt, the vaudeville star catapulted to fame by a deadly love triangle; and capitalist icons J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford.
There are many fine performances and clarion ensemble voices in this production. But it is Curtis Bannister, as ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., who steals the show - a triple threat with his formidable operatic voice, expertly tempered dramatic intensity, and superb dance technique.
Other intense performances are by Lydia Burke as Sarah, the mother of Coalhouse’s child who meets a tragic end; Kelly Britt as Mother, the elegant, golden-voiced suburban wife and mother who gradually sets herself free in many 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 impassioned yet profoundly rational Booker T. Washington; Michelle Owens as the irrepressible Emma Goldman and Ryan Dooley as Mother’s younger brother, who has an unrequited crush on Evelyn Nesbitt (Laura Sportiello), as well as a knowledge of explosives and a subtle but dangerous sense of rage. The trio of children (Hogan Porter, Omi Lichtenstein and Brady Seth Barton) also are ideally cast.
The production’s expert 18-piece orchestra does full justice to the great beauty, immense emotional weight, stylistic variety and character-defining quality of the score. And Sotirios Livaditis’ sets, with everything from the clever use of a dollhouse, to several large metal staircases on wheels that morph easily to suggest everything from a domestic scene to a baseball stadium (with a full-size Model-T Ford that is of crucial importance to the story), are enhanced by Andrew Myer’s lighting, Jonesy Jones sound design, and Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes.
This is a massive production, and Flaster’s ability to weave its many powerful themes and distinctive characters into perfect cohesion is mightily impressive. This is a musical that sets the highest standards on every level.
“Ragtime” runs through Nov. 9, but deserves a much longer life (perhaps with a remount on another stage). For tickets visit MusicTheaterWorks.com or call (847) 673-6300.
Note: Next up at Music Theater Works will be Elton John’s “Billy Elliott, The Musical” (Dec. 23, 2021-Jan. 7, 2022). Then comes its full 2022 season which will include: “La Cage Aux Folles” (March 10-April 13); “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” (June 2-June 26); “Zorro, The Musical” (Aug. 11-Aug. 21), in association with Chicago’s Ensemble Espanol dance company, and with music by the Gipsy Kings; “Camelot” (Oct. 20 - Nov. 13); and “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” (Dec. 15-Jan. 1).
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