By Tristan Lejeune
Vibrant and resounding without ever getting too loud, the production of Ragtime at Ford’s Theatre until May 20 puts some audience members in tears, others in stitches, and many on their feet with applause by the end.
Normally, plays that try to “have something for everyone” come across as cramped and contrived, but this multicultural tale, set in and around early 20th century New York and based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, paints its picture with well-chosen strokes. And Ford’s’s production, directed by Peter Flynn with musical direction from Christopher Youstra, is not likely to leave anyone disappointed.
Ragtime exists on the timeline of musicals somewhere between The Music Man and Chicago, but it was written decades after those two, so it has more to say about the experiences of black and immigrant Americans. Three families form the basis of its story: one white and upper class, one black and dreaming of the future, and one Eastern European, penniless, and Jewish, newly arrived on U.S. shores. The three groups come to interact in ways both large and small with each other, as well as with famous figures from the day including Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan, and vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit (it was a great time for celebrity names).
OK, so some of these interactions honestly do come across as contrived, but others are organic, and they run the gamut from joy to tragedy.
Few actors handle the spectrum as well as Tracy Lynn Oliveria. Everyone up on stage has a strong voice, but she backs hers up by seizing many of the funniest and sweetest moments in the script. A budding individualist just starting to untie her apron strings, Mother demands a lot, and Oliveria brings her A-game. Someone cast this actress as Mrs. Lovett, stat.
Getting fewer lines but delivering them wonderfully is Noya Y. Payton as Sarah, finding sympathy playing a mother who would leave her newborn in garden. Sarah gets the pop standout “Your Daddy’s Son,” and she sings it to the rafters.
Also great at the tunes are their men: James Konicek’s Father and Kevin McAllister’s Coalhouse Walker Jr. Both of them are good enough to carry a concert, but performance-wise, this is the ladies’ show.
Wade Laboissonniere’s period costumes are a raggin’ fun time, which is good, because the set is boring as all hell. Moving a pair of rolling staircases back and forth doesn’t count as choreography now matter how many (and it’s a lot) times it happens. And if the multi-storied set is too forgettable, the lighting needs to be more show — changes in weather and time of day draw far too much attention to themselves.
But the show itself, underneath those flaws, is solid. Take your parents when they come to D.C. to visit — they’ll love it.