Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit becwillett.com.
The cast of Griffin Theatre Company’s production of RAGTIME, directed by Scott Weinstein. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Many consider the Tony-laden, late-90s musical RAGTIME an American classic. But I have to admit that I’m perplexed as to how its popularity even lasted this long. There’s no denying that the Ragtime music, the historical figures (Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford) and the perspectives of pre-war America regarding race, class, and immigration are important to the American identity, but a classic is should be something more than ticking boxes – and this uneasily structured plot leaves these stories unexplored, favoring quantity of story over quality. My intention here is not to incite the wrath of the musical theater gods but rather to show admiration for the level of the performances that were eked of this difficult script in Griffin theatre’s latest production, RAGTIME.
When three-plus storylines are tenuously linked together it is difficult not to pick a favorite, even if just to hedge one’s bets for a pay off at the end of the two and half hours. With grounded performances and powerful voices, 3it was hard not to favor that of Ragtime pianist, composer and activist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopang) and his partner Sarah (Katherine Thomas). Even with writing that flits from event to event without much meat in between, Tsopang and Thomas managed to grasp and fill every moment with intention and warmth, demonstrating both their vocal skill and acting chops. Indeed, this tenacity was evident throughout the performances, both in the onstage band of just three instrumentalists who unswervingly set the pace and tone, and the ensemble, many of whom played three or more roles and intermittently accompanied the band on musical instruments.
In the first half of the show immigrant Tateh (Jason Richards) and white, wealthy Father (Scott Allen Luke) sing “Two men finding, for a moment, in the darkness, they’re the same.” It is one of the strongest moments, the connection between these two men of different classes transcending some of the narrative ambiguity to show us that this is a story about the humanity of people. William Boles’ smart scenic design embraces this, providing strong lines and a variety of levels, defining space and focusing our attention on the people and their stories rather than their ever changing locale. Likewise, Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes focus on the people, communicating their viewpoints through the specificity of dress. The sheer number of costumes alone was impressive — not only era-correct but deftly curated to communicate class and social status through color, style and fabric choice.
I’m sure that argument as to the quality of story in RAGTIME — just as it has since its Broadway debut — will continue. Thankfully, it’s not always the play that makes the production, and in this case, Griffin’s artists have delivered above and beyond.