Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ragtime"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey

Righteous RAGTIME

Reviewed by Beverly Creasey

E.L. Doctorow’s boisterous panorama of turn of the century America has been transformed into an expansive musical, with savvy book by Terrance McNally, toe-tapping ragtime music by Stephen Flaherty and clever lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. McNally weaves the many-colored threads (of immigration, revolution, racism, war and women’s rights) into a variegated tapestry which covers (and uncovers) the struggle for justice in America.

You have but one weekend left to see the Footlight Club’s glorious production: Glorious, because director Bill Doscher knows that less is more. It turns out ‘less’ is brilliant because all the bells and whistles of the Broadway production pulled the focus away from the story. Doscher’s production etches the individual stories in high relief so that you’re no longer overwhelmed by the abundance in the mosaic.

Doscher knows quality, too. The performances in RAGTIME are extraordinary and I’m reluctant to single out one over the others because of the cornucopia of talent on the Jamaica Plain stage---but here’s another reason to hurry to the Footlight Club: Justin A. L. Waithe as Coalhouse Walker, Doctorow’s stand-in for Scott Joplin, the real “King of Ragtime.”

Coalhouse is the flashy, charismatic musician whose pursuit of justice will pit him against the establishment, titans of industry like Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan. Waithe has been singing his whole life but this is his first theatrical role, something which is almost unbelievable, given his presence on stage. His performance is what actors strive for: beauty of movement, depth of passion and conviction of characterization.

While Coalhouse is romancing Sarah (the shimmering Marshalee Ducille), we meet an impoverished Jewish immigrant (the charming Steven Littlehale) and his young daughter (the sweet Gabriella Guinta) whose dreams of success in a new land are vanishing rapidly. The third warp in the woof is a well-to-do matron whose husband (Brian Ott as the stuffy adventurer) signs on to Admiral Peary’s Polar Expedition, leaving her to run the family fireworks business. Maria Wardwell is luminous as the matriarch whose brother (John Raftery in a nifty turn) throws in with Coalhouse and yes, the drama explodes.

RAGTIME is full of crackling energy, in music director Thomas Lissey and choreographer Laurie Fischer’s dazzling production numbers, like the high-stepping Harlem “Getting Ready Rag” or the mourners’ exalting, rafter-raising “Till We Reach that Day.” The Footlight Club features a plethora of lovely, quirky performances, like Kristin Shoop’s ditsy showgirl, Christina Pizzo Buxton’s feisty Emma Goldman—even Harry Houdini (Ian Flynn) is tied into the story.

From Booker T. Washington (Steven Key) to Sarah’s loyal friend (Dee Crawford) every role stands out. If you want to see how we got to where we are today, then now is the time for RAGTIME.

"Ragtime" (2 - 17 April}
Eliot Hall, 7A Eliot Street, JAMAICA PLAIN
TICKETS:1(617) 524-3200

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide