“Ragtime” Evokes an America Then and Now in Strong MTH Production

Funny how productions of older shows so often reflect our present reality. 

That’s certainly the case with the handsome MTH Theater production of “Ragtime,” the award-winning 1998 musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel. Director Tim Scott fills up every inch of the stage at the Crown Center performance venue with people, sound and color. He makes smart casting choices and he keeps the epic show moving, despite its length and challenging structure. 

The stage show — created by playwright Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flattery and lyricist Lynn Ahrens — stands as one of the great collaborations. The result is a respectful take on Doctorow’s novel that acquires a life of its own. The humor is dry, the affection endearing, the anger palpable and the sorrow inevitable. And a subtle but clear strain of absurdism runs through the piece. It forces audiences to take a hard look at racism in another era and consider just how far we’ve come and how far we have to go.

And Flaherty’s music, composed in the spirit of the show’s title, at once recalls the early 20th century while sounding remarkably contemporary.

The narrative interweaves three families from from different social strata.  Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who has come to find opportunities with his young daughter and initially scrapes together a living by selling illustrated flip-books that anticipate the movies; Coalhouse Walker Jr., a well-spoken and dapper Harlem pianist who seeks to be reunited with Sarah, a young woman who has given birth to their son and has abandoned the child to the care of a white family; and an upper middle-class WASP family identified in the script only as Mother, Father, Younger Brother, etc. 

Also onstage, often intermingling with the fictional characters, are people from history, including radical Emma Goldman, escape artist Harry Houdini and black leader and educator Booker T. Washington. Periodically a clairvoyant little boy shouts out “Warn the Duke!” It’s a cryptic message until it becomes clear that he means Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, whose assassination triggered World War I, which would sweep away the ragtime era. 

This production is anchored by four exceptional performances — Kiarri Andrews as Coalhouse Walker, Lauren Braton as Mother, Cody Proctor as Tateh and Allison Jones as Sarah. Jones and Braton possess beautiful voices, as does Walker with his rich baritone, but the acting is what carries the day. I wouldn’t call these performances minimalist, exactly, but each one lingers in the memory for its elegant subtlety. Proctor, for my money, takes top acting honors. His Tateh is a marvelous piece of work — deeply felt, undeniably human. 

Shelby Floyd makes a strong impression as Emma Goldman, T. Eric Morris is impressive in multiple roles (especially Houdini) and Mike Ott smoothly transitions between the amusing Grandfather and several smaller roles, including Henry Ford. Willis Green brings gravitas and authority to the stage as Booker T. Washington.

Kayli Jamison is sexy and comic in equal parts as Evelyn Nesbit, “the girl in the red velvet swing. Tom Nelson as Father and Noah Lindquist as Younger Brother handle their roles capably.

A small ensemble led by music director Daniel A. Doss brings Flaherty’s music to life. In addition, this production benefits from an exceptional design team. Scenic designer Jack Magaw’s set makes the most of the relatively small stage, placing the orchestra on an elevated level while the actors do most of their work on the stage below. Magaw also incorporates a few staircases, which add some visual dynamism. Rachael Cady’s lighting, Georgianna Londre Buchanan’s costumes and Jon Robertson’s sound design are all first rate. 

In its own rose-tinted way, “Ragtime” addresses the American penchant for violence. The main thread running through the show is the radicalization of Coalhouse, whose response to virulent racism is to become an armed revolutionary. Also in the mix are the rise of labor unions, police doing the bidding of corporations and the middle-class’s depthless capacity for denial.

Sounds rather familiar and grim, I know, but the show concludes on an optimistic note, one that promises a brighter future. The notion of a better, fairer world might strike some viewers as naive, but it represents a goal always worth pursuing — even if it remains out of reach. 

“Ragtime” runs through Oct. 27 at MTH Theater at Crown Center. Call 816-221-6987 or go to www.MTHKC.com. 

About The Author: Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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