Musically glorious and undeniably relevant now more than ever, the 1998 Tony Award-winning musical drama “Ragtime” remains an emotionally riveting look at the dawn of the 20th century as evidenced in the Dayton Playhouse’s commendably crowd-pleasing production.
An epic account of race relations and cultural change set in and around New York beginning in 1902, “Ragtime” skillfully interweaves three compelling, familial stories rooted in the pursuit of the American Dream. White, upper-crust New Rochelle traditionalists, close-knit blacks embracing a new form of musical expression wafting throughout Harlem, and Eastern European immigrants hoping for a better life powerfully collide in a palpable sea of misunderstanding. Pulled apart by their differences, these well-defined groups are vividly accented by historical figures whose legacies defined the era such as magician Harry Houdini, vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit, financier J.P. Morgan, industrialist Henry Ford, controversial political activist Emma Goldman, and African-American scholar Booker T. Washington.
Librettist Terrence McNally, astutely adapting E.L. Doctrow’s acclaimed 1975 novel of the same name, impressively balances the dramatic arcs of the characters and sweeping themes. In fact, one group isn’t more important or significant than another, which can be considered the true test of the show’s greatness ultimately displayed in its depiction of a lovingly blended family. Further, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty’s splendid score, one of the finest of the 1990s, wondrously captivates with thrilling anthems (“Wheels of a Dream,” “Back to Before,” “Make Them Hear You”), tender ballads (“Your Daddy’s Son,” “Gliding,” “Our Children”), and ensemble-driven gems (“Ragtime,” “Crime of the Century,” “Getting Ready Rag,” “Till We Reach That Day,” “Atlantic City”). Due to the cohesive strengths of this Tony-winning creative team, currently represented on Broadway with the outstanding if underappreciated musical “Anastasia,” “Ragtime” is a rare breed of musical in which the show itself is the star.
The sophisticated citizens of New Rochelle leap forth by way of Father (Jeff Sams), Mother (Rachel Jensen), Mother’s Younger Brother (Garrett Young), Grandfather (Brian Sharp), and Little Boy (Avi Gilbert). Musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Kip Moore) and his girlfriend Sarah (Tia Seay) are examples of African-American struggle. Tateh (Ron Maurer) and his Little Girl (Peyton Deutsch) represent the aforementioned throng of immigrants bravely determined to make America their new land of opportunity. When Mother finds Sarah’s newborn baby buried in her garden, an extremely chilling turning point, a flurry of pivotal events unfold. Eventually, Coalhouse, scarred by racism and discrimination, turns to anarchy, Tateh evolves from poor peddler to prominent film director, and Mother turns her reticence into empowerment.
Moore, an endearing knockout bursting with likability and charm, winningly handles the score’s vocal demands, specifically immersing himself lyrically into “Wheels of a Dream” with aplomb. Seay, well-paired with Moore in a beautifully stylized performance befitting her classical training, renders one of the most heartbreaking, regret-tinged renditions of “Your Daddy’s Son” I have heard (her pause before the final verse is an inspired moment of unrushed potency). Jensen, a Playhouse newcomer and fine soprano, takes time to settle into Mother’s domain, but thankfully trades her presentational instincts for a deeper, more well-rounded characterization as the stakes are raised, solidifying her portrayal with a stirring rendition of “Back to Before.” The terrifically authoritative and hard-nosed Sams, commanding attention with every tap of his cane, gives credence to Father’s annoyed dismay at the world around him as his values are put to the test. Young, another Playhouse newcomer, sincerely conveys Younger Brother’s introverted innocence, but is somewhat of a perplexing paradox throughout due to his inability to break free of the role’s timid shell. Sharp offers delightful deadpan humor as the family curmudgeon. Gilbert, a memorable Randy in La Comedia Dinner Theatre’s regional premiere of “A Christmas Story: The Musical,” brings adorable wonder to the whimsicality inherent within the Little Boy. Maurer, passionately optimistic and frustrated as Tateh’s rocky journey of acceptance transpires, fuels the warmth of “Gliding” and “Our Children” but is also very fun and playful in “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.” Maurer also establishes a caring bond with the mostly mute yet winsome Deutsch.
Elsewhere, Becky Howard is wonderfully fiery as Emma Goldman, Hayley Penchoff cutely beguiles as Eveyln Nesbit, and Andrea Wilborn (Sarah’s Friend) absolutely brings down the house at the close of Act 1 leading a soulfully sanctified rendition of “Till We Reach That Day.” Michael Shannon, Brad Bishop and Franklin Johnson are also respectively convincing as J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Booker T. Washington. Michael Plaugher is miscast as Houdini but committed nevertheless. Jack Enix is smile-inducing as Coalhouse Walker III. Renee Franck-Reed, Jamie Pavlofsky, Tim Rezash, and Richard Lee Waldeck effectively bolster the score’s magnitude as an off-stage quartet (Rezash and Waldeck also join the action in featured roles). The large ensemble cast includes Krissy McKim Barker, Damon Barnett, Jr., Shayla James Birdsong, Shanna Camancho, John Carrington, Zenobia Curtis, Jackie Darnell, Shaun Diggs, Juan Gabriel Encarnacion, Kiersten Farmer, Tamar Fishbein, Michael Groomes, Adee McFarland, Robert McAdory, Carrin Ragland, Thomas Schoen, Jai-Ln Stafford, and Malcolm Walker.
Matthew W. Smith’s fluid direction is an asset considering the scope of the tale and its many musical numbers. Even when the stage is overcrowded, a strong sense of community remains palpable. In fact, “New Music,” my favorite song in the score, appropriately reaches grand operatic heights as Seay, exhibiting perfect timing and clear purpose, climatically joins Moore for one of the most blissful reunions in the musical theater canon. In addition, choreographer Nabachwa Ssensalo (formerly of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company) and guest choreographers Michael Shepherd and SMAG Dance Collective founder Groomes create flavorfully first-rate routines marvelously demonstrating character-in-dance, specifically the rousing, encore-worthy “Getting Ready Rag” (Groomes, Encarnacion and the ever-reliable Walker, strutting and swaying with finesse, are standouts among the personable Harlem ensemble). Musical director Ron Kindell’s excellent 18-piece orchestra is placed front and center, a great visual due to the score’s magnificent grandeur, but they often overpower the microphoned cast. Theresa Kahle’s attractive period costumes are culturally distinctive, but I’m curious why parasols are absent in “Atlantic City.” Chris “Red” Newman’s efficient set pieces, John Falkenbach’s lighting design, Heather Campbell Martin’s properties, Bob Kovach’s sound design, and Steve Burton’s wig design are equally noteworthy.
As our polarized country continues to navigate shifting winds whether cultural (Black Lives Matter) or political (the rise of Trumpism), may “Ragtime” forever stand as a beacon for what makes America truly great.
“Ragtime” continues through May 21 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Act One: 95 minutes; Act Two: 60 minutes. Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for seniors, students and military. For tickets or more information, visit www.daytonplayhouse.com.