Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's reviews of Bearded Ladies' Late Night Snacks Family Cabaret: Green Eggs and A Graham Cracker, Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat, and Meteor Shower
The musical is an adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's 1975 historical fiction novel about America at the dawn of the 20th century. There are a trio of protagonists; a successful Harlem musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nkrumah Gatling); the matriarch of a wealthy household in New Rochelle known only as Mother (Kim Carson); and Latvian Jewish immigrant Tateh (Cooper Grodin). As their stories develop and intertwine, we see how class, gender, and race impact each character's struggle to achieve the American dream. Terrence McNally's book is potent, and the score with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty is a tremendous mix of spirituals, ballads, gospel, and of course, ragtime.
The ensemble bringing Ragtime to life at the Arden is exceptional. Gatling is an electric and endlessly sympathetic Coalhouse Walker. Grodin's understated and earnest performance is riveting. Robi Hager exudes youthful frustration and idealism as Younger Brother. However, it is the women in the cast who make this production truly extraordinary. Carson brings down the house with an absolutely gripping rendition of "Back to Before." When she said, "no one will ever do enough for this child," an audible gasp swept through the audience. Mary Tuomanen is a force to be reckoned with as radical anarchist Emma Goldman. Jessica Johnson's powerful vocals and emotional energy stand out as Sarah's Friend and member of the ensemble.
To keep the audience close to the action, the Arden's F. Otto Haas Stage has been set up in the round with an octagonal floor-level stage. Audience members are arranged on seven sides of the theater and multi-level scaffolding occupies the last section. Several small platforms around the outer walls house additional acting space as well as the scattered orchestra.
Staging in the round can be tricky, but Nolan makes sure there is something visually interesting happening from every vantage point. To that end, the superlative cast is constantly creating small, special moments in every corner of the space. From where I sat we were treated to a fantastic view of Foreman's nimble hands and one silent instant of connection between Coalhouse and Younger Brother as powerful as a ballad.
There are only six designated musicians, but thanks to a bevy of instrument-playing cast members and powerful vocals the score sounds positively lush. Music is central to the plot and theme of Ragtime, so having a cast who can pick up their instruments and play along is wise. Making sure no instrument becomes lost or overpowering could easily become a challenge in such an intricate and complicated setup. Fortunately, music director Vince Di Mura and sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson use some audio magic to create a sound that is rich and well balanced even as the piano is pushed around the stage.
Although it takes place in 1904 and is based on a book written in 1975, the structural inequities that beset the characters in Ragtime are still rampant in America today. It may not offer any solutions, but this moving, intimate production gives the audience a chance to grapple with the weight of these injustices in a way that feels deeply personal. Whether you are in it for the entertainment or the education, this is a production you do not want to miss.
Ragtime runs through October 27, 2019, at Arden Theatre Company, F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, call 215-922-1122 or visit ardentheatre.org.