A slow meander through the Ford’s Museum is a chance for reflection about the journey of this country and the history of this theatre before we take our seats for tonight’s production of Ragtime. We immediately start to wonder if the cast are aware the house is open as they wander the stage in costume, place props and casually chat to others in contemporary clothing. After some initial confusion it’s clear this is a choice, and a statement, and one that will become apparent at the end of the evening.
Scenic Designer, Milagros Ponce de Leon, dominates the stage with a 3 story metal platform that accommodates a 9 piece orchestra on the second level. It features two detachable stairways that reach to that second level and which become integral to so much of the movement and flow of the show. The only issue with the impressive structure is the top tier is partially lost to some in the orchestra seating with people craning their heads to see underneath the overhang of the dress circle. A large piano sits center stage and Coalhouse Walker (Kevin McAllister) takes his seat and leads the cast through the Prologue: Ragtime.
As Mother (Tracy Lynn Olivera) says Goodbye My Love to her husband on one ship, Tateh (Jonathan Atkinson) and his daughter, Jewish immigrants from Latvia, arrive in America on another. We are distracted from the beautiful Journey On by the failure to hear any of lines delivered by Tateh’s daughter (Dulcie Pham), it’ s unclear if this is a projection issue or a mic failure (possibly the latter as she is fine for the rest of the show). At other times during the production, the orchestra, who sound spectacular, are too loud for some of the more delicate moments – it’s a difficult balance with the musicians onstage and one that is not quite achieved tonight.
Songs like Crime of the Century and Henry Ford introduce us to some of the real historical characters sprinkled into the play with the latter featuring some excellent production line choreography from Michael Bobbitt. Although these numbers help transport us to the period there is a sense by the middle of the first act that the audience is suffering from full choral fatigue. Perhaps this helps make the beautiful simplicity of Sarah’s Your Daddy’s Son the stand out moment of act one. Nova Payton delivers an incredible vocal that hauntingly resonates throughout this old theatre and her performance is one of wonderful restraint.
The show is almost musically flawless from this point on under the Music Direction of Christopher Youstra, and when Payton and McAllister duet on The Wheels of a Dream they dovetail so perfectly you don’t want them to stop. Of course the play takes a darker turn and Sarah is beaten to death leaving Coalhouse distraught. The transition from Sarah’s lifeless body to her moving off stage is one of many moments where Director, Peter Flynn and his Lighting Designer, Rui Rita, work in perfect harmony. McAllister is moved to tears and the cast sound at their absolute best on Till We Reach that Day to close the first act, with Ines Nassara standing out vocally among a very talented ensemble.
Any sense that the tension would be diminished by the intermission is quickly dismissed as McAllister pours his heart out on Coalhouse’s Soliloquy. It’s an incredibly emotional moment that encompasses heartbreak and rage and he lives every single syllable. The combination of McAllister’s rich baritone vocals and his connection to this role make it a truly standout performance.
Director, Peter Flynn, displays plenty of imagination and vision with the transitions between scenes although that is not always matched by the movement within the scenes themselves. One of many smart scene changes takes Father (James Konicek) and his son to a baseball game as both stairways are moved center stage to form bleachers. We are then transported to Atlantic City and Costume Designer, Wade Laboissonniere, has some fun with the period beach attire. There are many pleasing technical successes throughout the production; the use of sheets to illustrate the silhouettes created by Tateh and then the projection of those silhouettes as moving images onto a blanket are very well done.
Mother and Tateh’s paths cross again at the beach but the chemistry never quite takes off between Atkinson and Olivera and we don’t really buy into their future together. Atkinson gives a strong vocal performance and portrays a genuine relationship with his daughter but his delivery too often feels like someone impersonating an Eastern European accent rather than having one and it is a little cliché. Olivera still has her finest moment to come as she absolutely stops the show with her incredibly powerful rendition of Back to Before.
James Konicek does a fine job with the slow character arc of Father as he eventually comes to see past the color of Coalhouse’s skin as he attempts to resolve the standoff at the Library. There is still time for one more hair on the back of the neck moments for McAllister as he convinces his friends that their job is not to die but to go out and Make Them Hear You. Father’s naivety at the fate that awaits Coalhouse if he steps outside is a chilling moment as the orchestra are joined by the cast banging on the set in unison to signify the end of his life by gunfire.
After the epilogue the ensemble reprise Wheels of a Dream and are joined again by others in current day clothing, showing that this story of America is not confined to the history books, but one that is still unfolding today. Get a ticket to see this one while you still have the chance.
#tothepoint Rating 80/100
You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.
Ticket Price: $50
Value Rating: +$10
With our scoring system and our unique value for money guide we rate this show at $60. Ragtime continues at Ford’s Theatre until May 20th.