Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in Fredericksburg, VA is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. It is including some very special shows this year, including the current production of “Ragtime: The Musical,” based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow.
Poignant and nostalgic…remind[s] us that ‘we can never go back to before…’
“Ragtime” takes place during the ragtime era of the piano player, Scott Joplin, circa 1900. It tells the stories of three families, each representing a segment of American society. There is the upper class family of Father, Mother, Mother’s Younger Brother, Grandfather, and the Little Boy who are confronted with social change. Then there is Tateh and his Little Girl, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who represent the immigrant experience and struggles. Last, but by no means least, is ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr., and the love of his life, Sarah. Real historical personalities appear and interact with Doctorow’s characters throughout the work, making this unique musical at once complex, literary, and historical. Happily, director Patrick A’Hearn and his talented cast excel in both singing and acting as they tell this story.
All of the cast have glorious voices, especially Nicole Vanessa Ortiz as Sarah, who sings “Your Daddy’s Son” with haunting poignancy. Adrianne Hick, in “What Kind of Woman” and “Back to Before,” approaches these pieces with a compelling operatic style. The ensemble singing is particularly strong, especially in the title piece “Ragtime” which opens the musical. Complementing the production are wonderful period costumes (including Victorian white gowns with parasols) designed by Kyna Chilcot. Musical director Carson Eubank and his aggregation of top musicians convey the spirit of ragtime, so essential in expressing this era.
Brendan Hale, Chris Zavadowski, Kevin Cleary, Andy Braden, and notably Anthony Williams and Andrea Kahane enact brilliant performances of notable historical figures—the illusionist Harry Houdini, the industrialist J.P. Morgan, the auto manufacturer Henry Ford, the Arctic explorer Admiral Peary, the African-American educator Booker T. Washington, and the anarchist Emma Goldman. Jacquez Linder-Long stands out in particular for his performance of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. He is equally at home with singing; dancing at the “Tempo Club;” realistic piano playing during strides in ragtime pieces; and—perhaps most importantly—a moving, sympathetic portrayal of a greatly wronged character.
Of particular note is the manner in which this production takes on the challenge of presenting a complex historic story involving three separate groups of people who often appear in different locations. These various locations are signaled to the audience by using monochrome and authentic-looking period film reels projected digitally over the stage, using the actors from the production. Projections of vintage postcards are utilized to represent locales such as Atlantic City. Dunes and ocean scenes remind us that the incidents presented were actual historic moments in time and that the human ideals and foibles portrayed are also as timeless as the dunes and the sea. Movie projections also show the evolution of Tateh, wonderfully portrayed by Alan Hoffman, a fictional figure who achieves success through his work in the early development of cinema.
The outstanding scenic design by Frank Foster is not limited to film projections. Excellent props are also used, such as a life-size historic Ford car which becomes a central point of the drama. The car is the setting for a beautiful duet between Coalhouse and Sarah (“Wheels of a Dream”). Later, when the car is vandalized, it embodies the damages caused by racist hatred. A moveable set with stairs was employed to great effect to simulate Henry Ford’s assembly line method of automobile production.
While a musical, “Ragtime” is a serious piece, with significant emphasis placed on historical themes and personal tragedy. The songs are compelling, including a wonderful Sarah Mae Anderson as one-time tabloid celebrity. Evelyn Nesbit. Evelyn’s songs, “Crime of the Century” and “Atlantic City,” are memorable for illustrating the character’s charming, quirky personality, accompanied by showgirls wearing red with flickering Broadway lights. These numbers also demonstrate the musical’s strong Broadway feel as does the superb choreography by Stephanie Wood.
Poignant and nostalgic, Riverside’s “Ragtime” reminds us that “we can never go back to before,” to quote the lyrics of one of the songs. The production’s honest portrayal of the many social problems of the era shows that this is indeed a good thing.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with on 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: The violence, while highly stylized, may be disturbing to young children.
“Ragtime” runs through May 7, 2023, at Riverside Center for the Performing Arts, 95 Riverside Parkway Fredericksburg, VA 22406. For more information and tickets, please visit online. Masks are not required.