Review: RAGTIME at Griffin Theatre Company

Review: RAGTIME at Griffin Theatre Company

Just as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s 1999 musical RAGTIME traverses numerous locales on the East Coast and spans the years from 1906-1914, so too does director Scott Weinstein’s dynamic staging make full use of The Den Theatre’s Heath Mainstage. In Griffin Theatre Company’s production, Weinstein’s in-the-round staging often has actors dispersed among the audience (indeed, a handful of performers appeared right in front and me and even made eye contact during the performance). While this is an intimate production of a sweeping musical, this genius device lends RAGTIME the grand air it commands. The closeness of the action also lends pathos to this story of three American families—one white and privileged, one black, and one immigrant—as they navigate a changing country at the beginning of the twentieth century.

William Boles’s clever set design makes good use of the performance space, and he does not waste an inch of it. In a particularly nifty turn, Boles turns one of the onstage pianos into a car. Rachel Sypniewski’s costume designs are nothing short of magnificent; she gives all the characters such unique senses of self and makes it easy to differentiate roles for the actors who double (or triple) up. Stephen Ptacek’s sound design adds tension to RAGTIME’s more heightened moments, as does Alex Ridger’s lighting.

Of course, the events in RAGTIME (with book by Terrence McNally and based upon E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel) have echoes of the present as we watch the families’ lives intersect. Though the plot seems a bit confusing and thorny in places, Weinstein’s cast allows us to feel the musical’s timeliness. The ensemble also does splendid work with Flaherty and Ahrens’s score, accompanied by a three-piece chamber orchestra that’s occasionally supplemented by the actors (music direction by Ellen Morris and Jermaine Hill). Though the instruments are few, the cast’s solid harmonies fill the space with dulcet tones.

The individual performances are similarly apt. Laura McClain makes an empathetic and sweet-voiced Mother, as she fully relays the struggle between her obligation to her husband and her desire to help those around her. As the young couple Sarah and Colhouse Walker Jr., Katherine Thomas and Denzel Tsopnang deliver one of the most beautiful and haunting duets of the evening in “Wheels of A Dream.” These two also shine in solo moments, with Thomas’s stunning take on “Your Daddy’s Son” and Tsopnang making fine work of Colhouse’s understandable turn towards darkness in the second act. Neala Barron’s voice rings loud and clear as Emma Goldman, and her formidable vocal chops are also readily recognizable in the ensemble numbers. Caitlin Collins is perfectly flighty as vaudeville performer Evelyn Nesbit, while Frederick Harris finds every bit of gravitas in Booker T. Washington. As the immigrant Tateh, Jason Richards turns out one of the evening’s most heartfelt performances.

With this stellar Chicago company, RAGTIME will leave audiences humming the title song and contemplating the musical’s timely themes. For first-time viewers like myself or for those already acquainted with Ahrens’s and Flaherty’s lovely score, Griffin Theatre’s staging is worth a visit.

Griffin Theatre Company’s RAGTIME plays through July 16 at The Den Theatre, 1333 North Milwaukee. Tickets are $39. For more information, visit

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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