Ragtime Raises the Roof at Ford’s

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill. 

With a mighty cast of 20 that feels at times as if it swells to 100, director Peter Flynn’s revival of “Ragtime” at Ford’s Theatre brings to life the pervasive exuberance, tension, and hope at the last century’s dawn. Perhaps unintentionally it also shows the stark contrast between common perceptions of bigotry, racial injustice, and economic inequality when the show premiered on Broadway 20 years ago, and today. It seems almost quaint that in 1997 Americans could imagine these contentious issues were safely buried in the past, when today all the challenges of tackling them have come roaring back.

“Ragtime” captures the pulsing convergence of immigrants, African-Americans, and the comfortable upper middle class in old-time New York, opening with a prologue and full-throated rendition of its theme song by the entire cast portraying these three classes. Yet even as company members blend into a proverbial melting pot, distinct characters and their stories emerge: Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera), the comfortably sheltered wife of a successful businessman (James Konicek) who is leaving her in charge during his yearlong excursion to the North Pole; Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Kevin McAllister), a ragtime musician primed to usher in a new era of opportunity for African-Americans; and Tateh (Jonathan Atkinson), an Eastern European immigrant with boundless hope and aspirations.

At its heart “Ragtime” is a story of transformation. All the main characters experience an awakening that forever alters their perceptions and prospects, for better or worse. Near the end of the first act, devoted largely to the exposition of its central characters’ dreams, there are still no signs of dramatic tension. Then tension crashes down with a vengeance, in a narrative that by Act Two careens in almost unbelievable but engrossing directions.  

Just a few spoken words set up the show’s core of gorgeous music. Both McAllister and Olivera were featured in Ford’s “110 in the Shade” last year, but that show’s songs didn’t do them justice. In “Ragtime” their voices enjoy full rein in poignant anthems like Coalhouse’s “The Wheels of a Dream” and “Sarah Brown Eyes,” sung in duets with the outstanding Nova Y. Payton as Sarah, and in Mother’s wistful “Back to Before.”

As Coalhouse, McAllister is larger than life, displaying all the swagger that attracts women in droves, with the pathos of a man who has lost everything he cherishes and, finally, the fierce charisma that draws his followers into violent rebellion. Olivera counterbalances his evolution with a steady presence, the conscience of the story and constant voice of reason and compassion.

Enter Tateh, the immigrant who enriches the chronicle of black injustice and white privilege with a rags-to-riches saga. In this role the enormously appealing Atkinson conveys wild optimism, crushing disappointment, and dogged perseverance in a rich voice, showcased in songs like “A Shtetl iz Amereke” and “Success.”

As Father, Konicek shines as well. He does a masterfully subtle job of revealing the self-centered adventurer’s thinly veiled bigotry along with the tender side of a man who is more ignorant than malevolent, so that his eventual enlightenment seems perfectly natural and all the more gratifying. Gregory Maheu plays Father’s tempestuous brother-in-law with energy and conviction, while the talented young actor Henry Baratz is refreshing as Father’s son, at key intervals blurting out the truth as everyone else shrinks from it. 

A variety of fabled figures of the time populate the story as well, symbolizing churning social and economic change. Rayanne Gonzales, a supporting actor who has been consistently excellent in productions such as Arena Stage’s “Oliver!” and Shakespeare Theatre’s “Man of La Mancha,” stands out as union organizer Emma Goldman, her lofty soprano floating above the chorus. And Washington theater veteran Christopher Mueller is mesmerizing as the exotic and driven Harry Houdini.

Music director and vocal arranger Christopher Youstra and choreographer Michael Bobbitt make the most of a small cast and tiny stage, especially in numbers like “What a Game,” featuring every man in the company reacting in perfect sync to an imaginary baseball game. And Kim Scharnberg’s orchestrations manage to make a nine-member band sound as robust as a full orchestra.

Scenic designer Milagros Ponce de Leon’s clever set, composed of vintage scaffolding, soars to a third story, where by turns it successfully evokes the bow of a ship bound for the North Pole, the attic hideaway of a distraught young mother, and the pinnacle of US industry from which Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan survey their wealth and power. (Less effective are two moving staircases rolling around the stage during lively musical numbers when they might have been better off staying put.) Lighting designer Rui Rita has worked magic too, deftly shifting the atmosphere and mood of rapidly changing scenes with carefully modulated lighting.

Costume designer Wade Laboissonniere has created suitable period costumes featured through most of the show, but at the beginning and end he clothes the cast in modern-day attire. As the actors set their gaze on the audience, it’s clear they have a message for modern times: While “Ragtime” portrays an ostensibly less tolerant and equitable chapter in our country’s history, even today we have a long way to go.

“Ragtime” is on stage at Ford’s Theatre through May 20.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill. 

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