Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing
Director Peter Flynn has scaled back a work that could involve an overpowering number of performers and an overwhelming set, much as Eric Schaeffer did recently with Titanic at Signature Theatre, but following a different plan. Where Signature's space is malleable and allows for configurations that place actors almost face-to-face with audience members, Ragtime takes place on a traditional proscenium. Its three-story set designed by Milagros Ponce de León, assisted by Rui Rita's lighting design, can conjure up the fire escapes of the Lower East Side, the townhouses of Harlem, and the spacious homes of early 20th-century New Rochelle.
The 1998 musical by Stephen Flaherty (music), Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), and Terrence McNally (book), based on E.L. Doctorow's multifaceted novel, looks back at the triumphs and injustices of America in the early 1900smany of which resonate today, as Flynn's staging makes clear. The privileged, well-off residents of New Rochelle begin the musical in a world where "There were no Negroes and there were no immigrants," but before long their complacency will be shaken by a Harlem pianist who doesn't "know his place" (Kevin McAllister) and a struggling Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe (Jonathan Atkinson).
First things first. McAllister gives a magnetic performance in the central role of Coalhouse Walker Jr., a proud man who believes in the promise of his country until prejudice, bureaucracy, and unreasoning violence grind him down. Nova Y. Payton is riveting as Coalhouse's lover Sarah, who has seen the worst but dares to hope for more, and her rendition of "Your Daddy's Son" brings chills.
Other standouts are Rayanne Gonzales as the anarchist Emma Goldman; Tracy Lynn Olivera as Mother, a New Rochelle wife and mother discovering her own identity; Atkinson as Tateh, a poor artist determined to protect his young daughter; and Gregory Maheu as Olivera's aimless Younger Brother, who finds a surprising ideological connection with Coalhouse. In keeping with the theme of America as a nation of immigrants, some of the ensemble members joining Atkinson at Ellis Island are dressed in African or Arab fashion (the sumptuous costumes are by Wade Laboissonniere).
Choreographer Michael Bobbitt keeps the company in almost constant motion, with moments of both conflict and pure fun, and the nine costumed musicians, including music director Christopher Youstra, preside from the second level of the set.