Playwright: Terrence McNally; music, Stephen Flaherty; lyrics, Lynn Ahrens. At: Griffin Theatre at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 866-811-4111; Griffintheatre.com; $39. Runs through: July 16
Ragtime is among the most musically powerful and deeply felt Broadway shows ever written. It's also huge ... or has been until now.
This production unveils a "smaller" Ragtime, performed by a 20-person ensemble ( still large ) and a three-person orchestra ( playing multiple instruments ) driven by twin pianos. To say that Ragtime loses none of its musical or emotional power is the honest truth; to say that director Scott Weinstein and musical directors Jermaine Hill and Ellen Morris have knocked it out of the park is nothing less than this production deserves.
Based on the deceptively simple novel by E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime is historical fiction set mostly in New York before World War I in which the crisscrossing paths of white Yankees, Harlem Negroes and Eastern European Jewish immigrants lead to tragedy and triumph. Historic figures Henry Ford, Pierpont Morgan, Houdini, Emma Goldman, Admiral Perry, Booker T. Washington and others now forgotten also make cameo appearances. The book and musical reflect the prejudices, opportunities and tumultuous social forces that forged 20th-century America. In my years in theater, I've encountered no other show in which the score so knowingly embodies the story and so potently enhances the emotions. Act I of Ragtimewith its glorious peak in "New Music"is musical-theater perfection, and Act II isn't far behind.
Griffin's production is stirringly played, ardently sung, tellingly acted and richly designed ( beautiful period costumes by Rachael Sypniewski ), while the intimate in-the-round staging brings the show into one's lap. There's plenty of musical movement although not a lot of dance ), but that's a minor caveat. More seriously, the sound design is spotty and needs further adjustment and/or remixing, and that's the worst thing I can say about this production!
I loved the little orchestra, which supplements the pianos with violin, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, accordion, mandolin and bass drum from song to song in sensitive and imaginative new orchestrations by Matt Deitchman. The score includes marches, waltzes, novelty tunes, anthems and, of course, the music of the title. "
The passionate performers portray one set of lives blossoming and another set fading.
Ragtime and Parade ( continuing at Writers Theatre ) offer Chicagoans an unusual opportunity to see two astonishing musicals about early 20th-century America. See them both; they are superb companion pieces.