From the show’s dazzling opening number to the emotional closing moments, Ragtime: The Musical at Henderson’s McGregor Hall is an overwhelmingly satisfying visual and aural theatrical feast. An impressively talented cast, smart costuming, effective set design, and some truly beautiful music combine to make this a first-rate, must-see production.
Terrence McNally’s adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s complex novel weaves together the story of three families with those of real historical figures in the early decades of 20th century America. The musical opened on Broadway in 1998 and received four Tony Awards, including Best Book (Terrence McNally) and Best Score (Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens). More recently, the show was produced by Playmakers Repertory Company (2019) and NCSU Theatre (2020).
The narrative highlights societal changes as well as the barriers to class mobility, particularly racism, gender inequality, and immigrant hostility. It’s a sweeping saga that demands huge commitment from both its cast members and its audience with an elaborately syncopated rhythm underlying both the music and drama. Under the fine direction of Mark Hopper, all of the elements coalesce and the experience is mesmerizing and breathtakingly beautiful, even with the weighty themes.
Matthew Nowell’s creative use of a scaffold platform, mood-enhancing lighting, and Sarah Burns’ impressive set pieces, seamlessly move the audience through the worlds of wealthy white New Rochelle elite, impoverished New York City immigrants, and urban Harlem residents. These three worlds collide when Mother, an upper-class wife of a businessman, encounters Tateh, a Jewish immigrant father from Latvia, and Coalhouse Walker, a black musician.
Kelly Keats as Mother not only soars in her solos, What Kind of Woman and Back to Before, but also conveys the frustrations of a wife discovering a newfound independence after her husband leaves on an expedition.
As Coalhouse Walker, Kamerin Hull exhibits all the swagger and determination that makes him a charismatic figure, as well as a target for white intolerance. His rich voice stands out both in company numbers and duets with his love interest, Sarah (Karen-Leigh Albert), conveying the depth of his passion along with his frustration and pain at not obtaining justice. And Albert’s quiet performance is made all the more powerful because of her magnificent voice saturated with pure emotion.
Veteran performer Josh Glasscock offers a standout performance as Tateh, an artist trying to provide for his daughter in a new country. He most clearly symbolizes the beliefs immigrants invest in the American dream, but skirts stereotypes. Instead he’s fleshed out the emotional arc of his character. His voice is also powerfully tender, especially in the stirring and moving duet, Our Children, with Keats.
The stories of the three principal characters play out against a parade of historical figures, from the fiery socialist Emma Goldman (Cassie Ford), to the seductive and scandalous stage performer Evelyn Nesbit (Katie Bolaños) to the smooth-talking escape artist Harry Houdini (Andy Dickerson). Other historic figures making an appearance include a beguiling Henry Ford (Dustin Britt), and a refined, dignified Booker T. Washington (Benaiah Adesoji).
Other notable performances include Matthew Emig as Mother’s Younger Brother, an intense young man looking for a cause to embrace; Jonathan O’Geary as Father, a man who is very slow to see or experience change; and Ben Hicks in the difficult role as the racist fireman, Willie Conklin. Special recognition also to Grayson Gutekunst (The Little Boy) and Mialini Radford (The Little Girl) for their poised and polished moments, as well as to the impressive 17-piece orchestra conducted by Mark Hopper.
Ragtime tackles how perspectives of an American Dream are pinned to an individual’s background, gender, race, experience. Yet in the hands of the late Terrance McNally, there is so much hope, delivered without kitschy sentimentalization, that it elevates this musical and those fortunate enough to experience it.
Ragtime runs through November 5 at McGregor Hall in Henderson. For more information visit https://www.mcgregorhall.org/.