Usually, I would start this piece with some brief history about the rise of ragtime itself, the musical stylings of which permeate the score of Signature Theatre’s “Ragtime” like a warm, summer breeze. Or I might talk about the history of the musical, written by Terrence McNally in 1996 and based on a book of the same name. Yes, history is what drives the plot, and the consequences of American history are ever-present, skulking in the wings ominously. Sexism is rampant in the home and racism is stated openly rather than muttered halfheartedly. Yet the characters in “Ragtime” press on. This show is about the human spirit, indomitable, and fierce. Signature Theatre created a piece of theatre—almost impossible to capture with words—that lingered bright and hopeful long after the actors took their final bow.
…a piece of theatre—almost impossible to capture with words—that lingered bright and hopeful long after the actors took their final bow…The ensemble of actors, coupled with a thunderous orchestra backing them, was spellbinding. You don’t want to miss this one.
Each actor in the principal cast approached their role with wide-eyed sincerity. Immortal lovers Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah, played to breathtaking effect by Nkrumah Gatling and Awa Sak Secka, eased into each heart-wrenching ballad of love and pain faultlessly. Their voices leapt and spun across the measures of Stephen Flaherty’s score like they were made for it. Secka’s rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son,” in which Sarah grapples with Coalhouse’s abandonment and her love for their son, swallowed up all light and scenery until one could see and hear nothing but Secka’s rage and sorrow. The number was simply superb.
Gatling as Coalhouse lived an entire life in under three hours. We watched as Coalhouse introduces the audience to ragtime with the “Gettin’ Ready Rag.” We rejoiced as Coalhouse, stunned, dropped to his knees as Sarah flung herself into his arms. Sarah’s attempt to contact the vice president is in vain but all we can do is watch as Sarah is abruptly ripped from Coalhouse’s life and he is forever changed. Matthew Gardiner’s direction is stunning and he moves his characters from place to place with ease. This logic-perfect staging, combined with Tyler Micoleau’s lighting, allowed plenty of space for the actors to create tone and stakes. In the middle of all this, adrift in chaos, is Coalhouse. Gatling created the portrait of a hero who, despite all adversity, remained a hero in our eyes until the very end.
The orchestra, conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, was placed on the second tier and galvanized the action from above. Since they were as much a part of the story as the ensemble, Gardiner made a good choice in emphasizing their presence with lighting rather than trying to hide them. The ensemble lingered on the sides of the stage, sometimes watching the action and sometimes simply inhabiting stillness. These choices engaged the audience and made us feel like we were all part of something bigger than ourselves. The orchestra was lovely. I fully blame them for the many tears that fell throughout the show.
The two-tiered set was perfectly industrial, giving the appearance of a factory. There was an almost metallic air to numbers like “Henry Ford” when the company sings about the rise of the Model T. Contrast this with a number like “New Music” which takes place inside Mother and Father’s home—the atmosphere is starkly different. This comes down to Tyler Micoleau’s versatile lighting and Ashleigh King’s thoughtful choreography which move the plot along well. The costumes were fantastic. Mother’s dresses appeared lush and Father’s suits well-tailored, whereas Tateh and The Little Girl’s clothes were worn and well-traveled. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by ruffles and mustaches and every detail was conceived by the costume department, headed by Erik Teague.
Yet, this small dive into Signature Theatre’s production isn’t enough. How does one capture a production that simultaneously felt like light rippling through a stained-glass window or a glass of warm milk with honey? The energy hummed through this show like a live wire. The ensemble of actors, coupled with a thunderous orchestra backing them, was spellbinding. You don’t want to miss this one.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 45 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for mature upper, elementary-aged children and up. Contains strong language, including racism, has violence, guns/gunshot sounds, explosions, use of herbal cigarettes and death and will use theatrical haze.
“Ragtime” runs through January 7, 2024 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell St, Arlington VA 22206. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office at 703-820-9771 or go online. (Note: Signature does not admit children under 6 years of age.)