Saturday, February 03, 2018

The Great American Melting Pot?: Wonderfully-Sung 'Ragtime' at Marriott Proves Rather Wistful in a Contemporary Context -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru March 18

"America is not just a country; it's an idea."

Bono, the loquacious lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, has frequently espoused this thought from the concert stage.

While notable enough for me to remember it, the statement has largely just seemed like a Bonoish thing to say--and I say that as a big fan.

But as I watched Ragtime--the fine 1998 musical based on the best-selling 1975 book of the same name by E.L. Doctorow (I've never read it)--in a strong new production at the Marriott Theatre, Bono's words came to the front to my mind.

As the musical--based roughly in the first decade of the 20th century--chronicles immigrants arriving amid dancing circumstances, African-Americans fighting for justice in the face of horrific bigotry & brutality, women raising their voices in the midst of marginalization, etc., etc., it was hard for me not to think that the beautiful idea of a harmonious American melting pot continues to be a dream largely unfulfilled.

Photo credit on all: Liz Lauren
And perhaps fraying more than ever.

The modern relevance certainly wasn't lost on the show's producers at Marriott, director Nick Bowling or presumably much of the audience.

In fact, the sly contemporary commentary is part of the point, as Doctorow's famed book reflected the tumultuous '70s in which it was written, while hearkening back to another momentous epoch interwoven by ragtime--the jaunty musical stylings made famous by Scott Joplin and others--incidentally revived in 1973 Best Picture winner, The Sting.

But while I had seen Ragtime the musical on three prior occasions--regrettably not including the first national tour that re-opened Chicago's lavish Oriental Theater in late 1998--at which points it's not like bigotry, misogyny, xenophobia and polarization weren't present, today's realities make the show's underpinnings all the more potent.

Composed by Stephen Flaherty with flavorings not only of ragtime but other music of the age, it's not only the compelling narrative (scripted by noted playwright Terrence McNally) but many fine songs with lyrics by Flaherty's longtime collaborator, Lynn Ahrens, that make Ragtime a first-rate musical (if not, IMO, among the very best).

These include rousing choral numbers, such as the lengthy title tune that opens the show--with more people on Marriott's square "in-the-round" stage than I've ever seen--but also songs highlighting several different characters, including both fictional and historical ones.

Per the latter, a popular actress of the age, Evelyn Nesbit (a delightful Michelle Lauto)--whose husband killed her lover in a jealous rage--leads the terrific "The Crime of the Century."

Though the sparse scenery that's an inherent hurdle at Marriott, here exacerbated by a huge cast, factors into Ragtime being a trifle below the absolute best shows I've seen at the always-stellar suburban theater--such as last summer's The Bridges of Madison County, likewise directed by Bowling--the singing in this show is as good as I'd hope to hear anywhere, including Broadway.

Nathaniel Stampley, who plays ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and Kathy Voytko ("Mother") are both Broadway veterans who dazzled in Marriott's Bridges of Madison County and are again superb.

In fact, or at least opinion, based on that performance, this one and his incredible Cervantes in The Man of La Mancha--also directed by Bowling, in 2016--I believe Stampley merits being dubbed the best performer (or at least the finest male singer) to ever grace Marriott's stage.

And that's with tons of admiration for many other sensational ones.

If his renditions of "The Wheels of a Dream" and "Make Them Hear You" don't leave you awestruck and emotional, I'm not sure what will.

As an affluent white housewife coming to recognize the narrowness of her bubble, Voytko is also again demonstrably wonderful, including on "Goodbye, My Love," "What Kind of Woman" and more.

So too are Benjamin Magnuson as Tateh, a widowed Jewish father arriving through Ellis Island, and Katherine Thomas as Sarah, Coalhouse's paramour.

The vast cast includes actors well-enacting real people--Harry Houdini (Alexander Aguilar), Booker T. Washington (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis), Emma Goldman (Christina Hall), Evelyn Nesbit and more--and several other fictional ones, including the stalwart Terry Hamilton largely disguised as "Grandfather."

So unfortunately I can't cite everyone who does a fine job, including many local favorites throughout the ensemble. But I must note Patrick Scott McDermott, who as "The Little Boy," makes for one of the most likable kids I've ever seen onstage.

Theoretically, I should tell you more of the storyline--so dense that a lengthy loose-leaf synopsis has been inserted into the Playbill--or name more good songs, but I doubt either will much affect anyone's interest.

As I texted a friend who asked my thoughts after the show, this is "an excellent (if not the best) Marriott production of an excellent (if not the best) musical.

"And it makes me sad to note how far we haven't come as a country in over 100 years."

For anyone who has willfully forgotten that we are pretty much all immigrants--save for the Native Americans we eradicated--who have been horribly ostracized and demonized by the those who preceded us, seeing Ragtime simply for that reminder--as well as outstanding entertainment--would seem to be a very good "idea."

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