Ahrens and Flaherty’s ambitious epic “Ragtime” is perhaps the finest musical produced in the nineties. Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, “Ragtime” is a historic fiction meditating on the explosive collision between class and race at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s one of those musicals still loved by folks who dislike musicals: bold, stunning, tragic and hauntingly apt. And the remarkably beautiful production currently at The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire brings the complexities of the script to gorgeous, thriving life.
It’s hard to know where to begin in praise. As Colehouse Walker, Nathanial Stampley has the kind of heart-wrenchingly gorgeous singing voice that makes it hard not to cry any time he opens his mouth. Benjamin Magnuson attacks the role of Tateh with so much energy that I have to hypothesize that he spends any time not at the theater sleeping. Katherine Thomas is heartbreaking as Sarah. And Kathy Voytko’s interpretation of Mother strikes the perfect balance of strength and naïveté.
Astonishingly, all of these incredible performers are upstaged by Keirsten Hodgens, whose delivery of the ultimate song in act one, “Til We Reach That Day,” is one of the most powerful theatrical moments I’ve had the privilege of watching. If you aren’t weeping by the final note you may be dead. Never before this production, in my years of watching theater, have I felt compelled to give a standing ovation at intermission.
As far as the direction goes, there’s not much to distinguish this production from any other version of “Ragtime,” but I was struck by a clear and thoughtful choice in the final moments of the play where Willy Conklin (the villainous white firefighter) spits at the multicultural family that the circumstances of the plot have brought together. It’s a sharp and stunning reminder that the struggle against racism is not over, that even after the most dramatic news stories reveal the horrific effects of racial bias in the nation, our country seems never to truly learn.
Words cannot express my affection for this play. I want this production to run forever. I want more theaters to do this script and hire these actors (all of them; there’s not a weak link in the cast). I want other scripts to be as bold, as frank, as clear, and as thoughtful as this script. This is what theater should be: thoughtful, exquisite, inclusive, diverse, responsive to the political moment, brave, and full of heart. (Emma Couling)
Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, (847)634-0200, marriotttheatre.com, $50-$60. Through March 18.