E.L. Doctorow X-Rays America’s Soul
Taking position in the first landing of audience seating, Griffin’s ensemble sings “What a game” re-creating the raucous and spitting bleachers crowd taking in our national pastime. This isn’t the gentlemanly sport that the Harvard-educated Father (Scott Allen Luke) had hoped to show his son, The Little Boy (Ben Miller). It is great fun—with actors singing close and so spirited, we are so transported to the baseball game that we might start craving a cold beer to stave off the heat.
Here is Griffin, directed by Scott Weinstein, flexing its ensemble muscles, as it is known to do, to convey this bottling of America’s zeitgeist at the dawn of the 20th Century, in a musical version of the late E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. (Book by Terrence McNally; Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens; Music by Stephen Flaherty; New Orchestrations by Matt Deitchman.)
A few shy of three dozen songs, Ragtime-the-musical hews pretty close to Ragtime-the-book. It’s a great read. E.L. Doctorow’s ability to X-Ray our American soul is stunning. Racism, xenophobia, the early stirrings of feminist yearning, the dynamics of class divides and more—Doctorow’s pen lets us see who we are today through the lens of our past.
In no small part, the charm of his story is in interweaving real-world icons of that day —Emma Goldman (Neala Barron), Houdini (Joe Capstick), Booker T. Washington (Frederick Harris), J.P. Morgan (Larry Baldacci) , Henry Ford (Jonathan Schwart), Kim Kardashian’s precursor Evelyn Nesbit (Caitlin Collins)— into a story about a family so generic that they are called Father (Scott Allen Luke), Mother (Laura McClain), Mother’s Younger Brother (Matt Edmonds), Grandfather (Larry Baldacci), and The Little Boy (Ben Miller).
Driving While Black Circa 1910+/-
As the story unfolds, this white bread family becomes more of a sideline to a tragic love story between a Ragtime pianist, Coalhouse Walker Junior (Denzel Tsopnang) and the mother of his child, Sarah (Katherine Thomas). Think of Ragtime as a Black Lives Matter prequel, circa 1910+/-. And, Doctorow’s pen weaves in the realities of the mass immigrations from Europe and Eastern Europe at that time, through the vignette of shetl-born Tateh (Jason Richards) struggling to find America’s golden promise and keep his daughter, The Little Girl (Autumn Hlava) alive and protected.
Griffin Theatre Assembles Talented Leads
Truth to tell, in this production there are relatively few remarkable ensemble moments like the baseball park scene. There is nonetheless much to enjoy, mainly in the compelling performances.
It's hard not to love the humorous cameos by Caitlin Collins as Evelyn Nesbit or Joe Capstick as Harry Houdini.
The charisma oozing from several of the leads puts Ragtime on the short list of best plays to see this early summer. Katherine Thomas and Denzel Tsopnang bring beautiful voices and moving acting to two especially lovely songs —“Your Daddy’s Son” and “Sarah Brown Eyes”. Throwing his body and voice into every line and lyric, Jason Richards’ portrayal of Tateh is so magnetic you feel pulled to his chest along with The Little Girl. When he and Laura McClain as The Mother sing “Our Children” they muster the full sweetness of the song. These are all gripping and compelling performances. We are duly grabbed.
Music Worth Listening to Again
For this writer, it comes as a bit of a surprise, especially in this Scott Joplin centennial year, that the score has so little to do with the ragtime genre of its title. That said, you will likely find yourself looking to the musicians quite a few times (Pianists and Music Directors Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris with Dan Hickey playing clarinet and more), perhaps similarly making a mental note to find the score on Youtube for a longer linger.
Expect to walk out of the Den Theatre moved by these compelling performers, and perhaps also moved to re-read everything by the late E.L. Doctorow’s pen.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Now through July 22
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 7:30 PM
Sundays 3:00 PM
Den Theatre Heath Main Stage
1333 North Milwaukee
Note: an excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago.
$34 – students, seniors, veterans
Photos: Michael Brosilow