Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Clue: On Stage

The Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
Let me begin with an upfront confession. In my humble opinion, if there is one musical that could be called The Great American Musical, it is Ragtime. Based on E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel by the same name, Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Lynn Ahrens' (lyrics) Ragtime incorporates early twentieth century stories of this country's immigrants, Black Americans, women, and the labor movement with uplifting dreams for a better tomorrow. But the musical does not shy away from their struggles, with those dreams too often smashed by the violent backlash from the threatened white male majority and the powers of the police and the politicians they control. All is supported by a glorious score and a set of songs of the emerging ragtime music genre ringing forth from Harlem in 1906–propulsive, syncopated music that in itself was both hopeful for change for many and a threat to stability for too many, according to whose ears were listening.

And, to continue my confession, when my favorite musical Ragtime is being staged by the company I personally most associate in the San Francisco Bay Area as perennially the proven, premiere venue to see great musicals–the Tony Award winning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley–and when that same musical is being directed by someone who has time and again been lauded and awarded over the past fifty-plus years for his sensitive, heartfelt, inclusive, and creative artistry–founder and recently retired TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley–then, readers, you need to know that going in I expect this Ragtime to be a "must-see" until I am proven wrong.

I am here to report that my expectation has not only been met, but has been exceeded by the magnificently cast, directed, and produced Ragtime, now being presented in a stunning, stirring, and spectacular production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. By the instant and sustained standing ovation as the ensemble's closing harmonies shook the rafters of the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, I believe that, while going in biased, my opinions were universally shared on opening night.

Even more than when it was first produced on Broadway in 1998 or by TheatreWorks in 2002, Ragtime is as much about America in the current day as it is about America at the dawn of the twentieth century. The intertwining of three families' lives–a suburban white family of some wealth, a Jewish immigrant family arriving full of hope with only a suitcase in hand, and a Black family seeking their rightful share of the American dream that has thus far eluded them–becomes marred and marked by violent anti-immigrant sentiment, racist attitudes among the general public, police brutality against Black Americans, prejudice against labor movements, and attempts to thwart women's independence of thought and control of their own lives. Watching this sweeping portrait of America in 1906 reminds us that there is much work still to be done in 2022 to be the country that lives up to the hopes and dreams of the people we meet in Ragtime, to live up to those of the people we are today.

In Ragtime's grand opening number, the interweaving stories of suburban whites, urban Black Americans, and arriving immigrants are introduced in beautiful harmonies, exacting syncopation, and interlaced dances and movements of Jewish, Black, and white natures. At the same time, we are also introduced to some of the many famous and infamous headliners of the day: Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, and Evelyn Nesbit.

Evelyn (Melissa WolfKlain) squeals and squeaks with delight in a skimpy, scandalous outfit of red, white and blue as she sings her story of going from chorus girl to everyone's sweetheart via a love triangle in which one lover murders the other. The press proclaims it "the crime of the century," but Emma Goldman reminds us, "it was only 1906," with the full chorus answering, "And there were ninety-four years to go." Coupled with a young boy's out-of-the-blue cry of "Warn the Duke," the catchy, energizing music of ragtime that is "skipping a beat, singing a dream" cannot completely silence a sense that all is not as well for the future as this stage full of society's plurality is hoping. But the ragtime beats of the era cannot help but generate optimism, with the full ensemble ringing out in rousing and glorious final notes, "It was the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning."

Each of the families we meet will share their stories that are woven with threads of anticipated new beginnings, possibilities of new friendship and new/renewed love, and dreams of making theirs and others' lives better. Each story will also have emerging clouds–storms that emit from the biases, prejudices, and often evil-based hatred of others who see those not like them or those with views different from theirs as a threat. Through it all, the new music of the age coming from the nightclubs of Harlem and transferred to the keyboards of society provides sustaining strength to find hope for the next generation that change for the better is always possible.

Leo Ash Evens is Jewish immigrant Tateh, who sings to his young daughter (Ruth Keith) of their joining "the parade of Americans doing well" with an excited and exciting voice of clarity that can only bring smiles to those listening. His is one of many voices on a stage full of other arriving immigrants looking for "Success ... Here in America anyone at all can succeed." His beautifully sung notes of initial hope will soon be overshadowed by frantic desperation as Tateh experiences the realities of a cruel, anti-immigrant Lower East Side of New York City. However, Tateh will reemerge into realms of new possibilities in a toe-tapping, grin-producing "Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.," when he sings the song like many immigrants before and after him who find ways to make a dollar, then two, then hundreds from their inherent ingenuity and stubborn determination.

Tateh, with his tallis strings hanging from under his tattered coat, meets a stylishly dressed woman by chance and both break the ice and dare to offer a "good day" to someone who looks and acts totally different from them. Their pleasantly, crisply performed "Nothing Like the City" is the first of several meetings and songs the two will share in a relationship that will continue to grow and flourish.

Identified only as Mother, Christine Dwyer plays that woman whose husband (Father, played by Noel Anthony) and the society around her want to confine her to the roles of wife and mother, tasked with the upkeep of a household. However, meeting Tateh and finding a Black baby boy hidden in her flower garden eventually lead her to a point where she sings with a voice crystal clear and confident with new-found strength for herself and all women around her, "We can never go back to before." Getting to that point of self-discovered freedom is a story–like those of each of Ragtime's main characters–worth its own musical. Christine Dwyer's Mother is only made stronger by the people very different from her who enter her life and change her forever.

One of those is the young, Black mother of the baby, Sarah, whom Mother takes in much to Father's chagrin. Sarah once fell in love with a Harlem piano player, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., who loved her and left her and the baby-to-be within her. As Sarah, Iris Beaumier sings a sublimely and reflective lullaby to her baby of "Your Daddy's Son," just the first time the audience will be held spellbound by her incredibly enthralling vocals that express emotions so deeply felt but so openly and often painfully expressed. When she and Coalhouse finally reunite through the magnetic power of his ragtime music, their "Wheels of a Dream" rings triumphantly with the hopes of every parent of every era and every race/nationality: "With the promise of happiness and the freedom he'll live to know ... our son will ride on the wheels of a dream."

As Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Nkrumah Gatling is yet one more of the perfect choices casting director Jeffrey Lo has made for this incredible assemblage of fifteen. However, there is something over and above exceptional in the choice of this Coalhouse. Every minute he is on stage, Nkrumah Gatling embodies the strength of character to persist against all odds, the resolve to attain justice when the doors of justice are slammed to a Black man like him, and the love for a woman that will stay with him even after a policeman's bullet takes her away forever.

With a voice that sings pure, powerful, and always purposeful, this Coalhouse Walker, Jr. is one to be remembered, just as is his story of revenge for an injustice that is not unlike the injustices today on the minds of all proclaiming, "Black lives matter." As he is about to make his ultimate sacrifice for justice, he pleads to all around him to "Make Them Hear You," reminding all of us of our duty to tell the stories of those who have fought, where "justice was our battle and ... justice was denied."

So much more could be written about the excellent performances of a cast who in many cases play up to four or five separate roles–both of the famous and of the passersby. Suzanne Grodner is a roaring firebrand of an Emma Goldman, whose heart shines through all her outward bluster. Michael Gene Sullivan is the steadying but steel-strong voice of Booker T. Washington, who sings with notes meant to calm and to appease but is increasingly rejected by former followers like Coalhouse who see the time for talk long past. Keith Pinto is a twisting, twirling Harry Houdini whose escapes from his chains and ropes add further excitement to an era where many are hoping for their own magical escapes from lives lived hard. With yet another impressive voice that sings full of bright hope and yet pointed determination, Sean Okuniewicz is Mother's Brother, a young man of society inspired by Emma and by Coalhouse to reject his privileged life and to seek to better the world, even at the cost of his own life, if necessary.

Time and again throughout the evening, it is the lighting as designed by Pamila Z. Gray that captures a scene's essence and magnifies the intended effect, both subtle and dramatic flows of colors, spots and shadows. That lighting scheme particularly plays well on the minimalist scenic design by Wilson Chin, whose choices of scenic support effectively allow the stories of these individuals always to be the center of attention. So much of the narrative, the differences in society placement, and the time period itself are reflected and further amplified by the incredible array of costumes designed by B. Modern.

Punctuating this inter-mixing of compelling stories and cameo appearances by the period's most famous are scenes of hilarity and of uplifting inspiration as directed by Robert Kelley and choreographed by Gerry McIntyre. A laugh-out-loud court scene played in vaudeville hilarity as Evelyn Nesbit testifies on a swing to a cartoonish court of judge and jurors ("Crime of the Century") is later equaled or topped in fun by a scene at a New York Giants baseball game where fans cheer, egg on, taunt, and periodically spit out their passion for America's number one pastime ("What a Game").

Other fully staged scenes speed up our heartbeats, such as when women of all sorts and backgrounds join in Mother's clarion call of "never back to before" or as when a group of late-nighters at Harlem's Tempo Club sing and dance to Coalhouse's piano in a rhythm and style that evokes the senses and demands some sway in one's audience seat. And when Leslie Ivy sings with spiritual passion and clarity of belief, "There's a day of hope, may I live to sing" in Act One's closing ("Till We Reach That Day"), she introduces a grippingly moving, full-voiced ensemble of voices singing what is really the key theme of this musical that mirrors so much of where America was and where America still is:

"Give the people
A day of peace.
A day of pride.
A day of justice.
We have been denied.
Let the new day dawn."

Ragtime runs through June 26, 2022, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 877-662-8978.