Ragtime unpacks the turn of the century American Dream at Moonlight through September 3
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, August 17, 2022
Red, white, blue, and undercurrents of discontent echo through the amphitheater in Ragtime the Musical… discontent not with the show, of course, but with the American Dream as it is tackled and challenged with great aplomb. This energetic musical, helmed by John Vaughn, runs at Moonlight Amphitheatre through September 3.
Ragtime is a Tony-Award winning show with book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and it tells the tale of Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker, Jewish immigrant Tateh, and a wealthy, upper class white Mother, and their very different walks of life. As the story progresses in turn-of-the-century New York City, the paths of these three characters’ families alternately diverge and draw together in surprising ways. Ragtime is a story of contradictions, pain, and hope in the face of the elusive American Dream, as well as how privilege impacts the attainment thereof. The characters are sometimes nameless and sometimes needlessly named (a handful of cameos add little to the story but to establish the time frame)… but their words and actions resonate in more than a historical context; at its core, Ragtime is a story about America’s history AND her present.
This production’s cast is ably led by Tony-nominated actor Charl Brown as Coalhouse Walker. Brown shines throughout the production, showing off his comfort in his dancing shoes during “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” and when he sings “The Wheels of A Dream” with Sarah (Brooke Henderson), the audience goes completely still; it is stunning, absolutely luminous vocal work. His character arc is deep, but he handles it confidently and successfully.
Like Brown, Broadway veteran Geno Carr captures Jewish immigrant Tateh perfectly. From the passion that he brings to his lines in “Success” when he sings “look at them, little one - such opportunity!” to the devastation he finds in continued closed doors and challenges, his every struggle reads with authenticity. When he sings, “I want to drive from her memory every tenement stench and filthy immigrant street. I will buy her light and sun and clean wind of the ocean for the rest of her life,” every parent’s heart aches. The performance is relatable, real, and beautifully done.
Another surprising eye-drawer was Younger Brother, played by Jake Bradford. Bradford’s idealism and palpable joy are evident in “The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square” and his number with Emma Goldman (Gerilyn Brault), Coalhouse, and Coalhouse’s Gang, “He Wanted to Say,” features the most lush and accurate harmonies in the musical.
These actors are joined by a large, talented cast featuring Bets Malone as Mother, Jason Webb as Father, Daxton Bethoney as Little Boy, Ralph Johnson as Grandfather, Emma Nossal as Evelyn Nesbit, Evan White as Harry Houdini, Bill Bland as Booker T. Washington, Leila Manuel as Little Girl, Makenzie Burningham as Coalhouse Walker III, and Greg Bailey, Laura Bueno, Drew Bradford, Beatrice Crosbie, Zane Davis, Leo Ebanks, Deborah Fauerbach, Krista Feallock, Berto Fernández, Johnny Fletcher, Rachael Groeneweg, DarRand Hall, Cody Ingram, Jordan E Johnson, Shirley Johnston, Eleni Kutay, Jodi Marks, Kimberly Moller, Caroline Nelms, Greg Nicholas, Jupityr Shaw, Mashun Tucker, Erin Vanderhyde, and E.Y. Washington in the ensemble.
The tech elements of this show are striking as well. Kevin Depinet is the creative scenic designer behind the many unique configurations that two rolling staircases find themselves in, and lighting designer Jennifer Edwards uses directional lights in vibrant colors and textures to show shifts between the various groups of players interacting on stage and the spaces they occupy. Projections by Blake McCarty are additive to the performance as well; McCarty integrates historical photographs and impressionist art throughout the production and uses abstract melting, watercolor effects, and vignettes to soften the edges and transitions. The effect is stunning.
Ragtime is a wonderful night of theatre out under the stars, best suited to more mature audiences due to thematic content, violence, and strong language. The production runs August 18-21, 24-28, and 31-September 3rd at 8pm. Tickets are available at moonlightstage.com.