CENTERVILLE — I have seen thousands of theatrical productions in my life, but there are a select few that have left a lasting impact. I first saw Ragtime on Broadway in 1998 and count it as one of those productions that have molded my mind and shaped the person I have become. Therefore, I relished the opportunity to see this story come to life in my own community and harbored both hope and trepidation regarding the venture.
Ragtime, with a book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by E. L. Doctorow. The CenterPoint production, directed by Emily Wadley, tells the interweaving stories of an African American couple, a Jewish immigrant father and daughter, and a wealthy Caucasian family living in the early 1900’s in New York City.
The first thing I noticed about the production was that the set design by Ron Nelson was understated in comparison to previous productions I have seen at CenterPoint, and I was unsure how I felt at first about the choice. However, as the story progressed, I was pleased to see that the minimal set actually allowed more focus on the story and the cast, and that Nelson’s precisely calculated choices in lighting heightened the story telling.
In perhaps one of the strongest moments of the evening, a simple iron gate is brought down on stage with dim lighting designed by Mark Rencher, leading to the opening of the song “A Shtetl is Amereke,” where a group of immigrants stand behind the gates at Ellis Island to be admitted into the United States. Wadley and the entire cast seemed to bring to life that moment in such a way that it hit me as not only representative of that moment in history, but also of how reality can complicate a person’s pursuit of the greater American dream.
Ragtime requires intricate costuming, and costume designer Tammis Boam did a spectacular job of showing the class differences among the characters. Each group’s costumes were beautiful in their own styling, but also had distinction and historical accuracy. The lighting by Rencher and the choreography by Marilyn Montgomery also added to these distinctions, which was highly evident in the introductory number when the three groups gather together and face each other. The contrast also supported in the finale, where the audience can see a successful story where people can learn to work together and genuinely care for one another.
The character of Mother (played by Angie Call) goes through a great transformation of learning how to look beyond her own life to see the world of difference around her. Call did a supremely eloquent job of building her character’s changing ideals and understandings and made Mother one of the most developed characters of the play. Younger Brother (played by Taylor Smith) also experienced growth in the play, especially in the scene where he meets with Coalhouse (played by Kiirt Banks), in which I could see that Brother has also found a way to question and reflect upon the changes happening in society around him.
Banks as Coalhouse was solid in his acting, though some of the singing was inconsistent. Watching the anger and emotion that he felt during the injustices that befell him was something that appeared to connect well with me. Colehouse’s girlfriend, Sarah (played by Raven Flowers), was a jewel of a performance, with the haunting song “Your Daddy’s Hands” bringing tears to some in attendance.
The character of Tateh (played by Danny Inkley) deals with the struggle to try and make it in a new country while also facing the sad realities of poverty, trafficking and any number of other atrocities. Inkley played Tateh so well, and the additional companion of his daughter (played by Isabelle Inkley) left me in tears as I watched their story progress through the stage.
The production, though, was not without some small flaws. I am reminded by this production of a lesson I learned long ago. One can with precision and perfection play every note in a piano piece, but without emotionally vesting in the music, it is nothing more than notes. Ragtime is a strong social commentary of where are country has been, where it is now, and where it should go. This cast has mastered the emotional side of this piece to a point that before the curtain fell, the audience was entirely on their feet, and as we walked out of the building, my 12 year old daughter and I heard people saying they needed to rush to the box office to buy tickets for someone else who needs to see this show. As a line in the show explains, there are thousands of stories to tell. The stories told in Ragtime seem even more important today than they were when I sat in the theatre in Manhattan, and I am glad to see the Centerpointe cast find the emotion and understanding to respectfully tell the stories of those who paved the way for the freedoms now seen. It is also a good reminder that though, as the closing of act 1 says, while we may have made some progress, we will never get to total peace until we reach a day of hope, understanding, and love of all, regardless of differences.