Griffin reinvents Ragtime in a “chamber musical” revival that’s brimming with invention and heart.
Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s sprawling turn-of-the-century novel, Ragtime arrived on Broadway in 1998 in a lavish production that managed to be dinged for both bloat and brutal efficiency. Despite winning Tony Awards for both Terrence McNally’s effective book and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s score, the show lost the best musical award to the more inventively ostentatious The Lion King. A 2009 Broadway revival earned some credit for finding greater balance in the material. But for a truly rousing reassessment, let me point you to Griffin Theatre Company’s intimately, intricately truthful new production at Wicker Park’s Den Theatre.
Scott Weinstein, inarguably at this point one of the most visionary young directors on the rise in the city, stages the musical in the round, with a multi-tiered set by William Boles that allows the large cast to move among the audience. This is one major step toward making Ragtime’s three main, intertwined storylines, as well as its many offshoots, feel equally accessible.
Another is the total rethinking of the music: Orchestrator Matt Deitchman has rewritten Flaherty’s score for two onstage pianos and a woodwind, bolstered here and there by several multi-instrumentalist cast members. The pianos are manned by co-music directors Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris—though three or four actors also end up taking the keys at various points—and the upright is mobilized, rolling out into the playing space to serve as the instrument of Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and, in a piece of staging that exemplifies how smart this production is, as Coalhouse’s prized Model T.
Weinstein manages the tendrils of the story—the family of New Rochelle WASPs; Coalhouse, his lover Sarah and their new baby; immigrant Tateh and his daughter; and real-life figures like Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini and Henry Ford—with sharp storytelling instincts and an abiding sense of sincerity and heart that’s matched by a top-notch cast.
It’s almost beyond the pale to single anyone out among this true ensemble, but we’ll make exceptions for the trusty Laura McClain and Jason Richards as the ambivalent Mother and determined Tateh. And then there’s Denzel Tsopnang and Katherine Thomas as Coalhouse and Sarah—two young talents so captivating, we’d gladly return to this Ragtime another time or two.
Griffin Theatre Company at the Den Theatre. Book by Terrence McNally. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Scott Weinstein. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.