Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Director Matthew Gardiner has ably organized his company of singing, dancing actors to tell the intertwined stories in Terrence McNally's book, skillfully adapted from the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens bring the early 20th century to life through a rapturous score that identifies the three diverse groups of characters: a wealthy, complacent white family in suburban New Rochelle, New York; a Russian Jewish father and his young daughter arriving at Ellis Island; and, in Harlem, a proud ragtime pianist and the woman he loves. (Since 25 years have passed since the musical's Broadway premiere, Signature includes with the program a faux newspaper providing additional context regarding the real people and events referenced in the script.)
Teal Wicks gives a serene and golden-voiced performance as Mother, whose sheltered life changes when she encounters a desperate Black domestic worker named Sarah (Awa Sal Secka, whose performance can wring the heart but also demonstrates moments of great joy and emotional depth). As Tateh, the struggling immigrant, Bobby Smith brings depth to a man who makes his way through optimism, despair, and ultimately a life he never could have anticipated.
The one capable but not standout lead performer is Nkrumah Gatling as Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Black man driven to extremes by vicious racist attacks. Gatling's performance never really reaches the necessary boiling point: he's angry but mostly reserved, even when preparing to go to war with one of the richest men in the United States.
Other standouts include Maria Rizzo as Evelyn Nesbit, a model propelled to vaudeville success by personal scandal and tragedy, who realizes too late that "justice is never fair"; Jake Loewenthal as Mother's Younger Brother, a child of privilege looking for purpose in his life; Todd Scofield as the pompous banking titan J.P. Morgan; and Matthew Lamb as the Little Boy, whose wonder and precocious awareness help drive the story.
Gardiner and choreographer Ashleigh King seem to keep the performers in continuous motion, aided by the momentum of the turntable in the middle of Savage's set. Erik Teague has created character-defining costumes–mostly white for Mother, bright colors and patterns for the Harlem residents, and an amusing way to demonstrate the change in Tateh's fortunes–and Tyler Micoleau's lighting design magically turns the stage into the Atlantic City boardwalk.
Ragtime runs through January 7, 2024, at Signature Theatre, MAX Theater, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington VA. For tickets and information, please call 703-820-9771 or 1-800-955-5566 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.
Book by Terrence McNally
The Little Boy: Matthew Lamb