You know how there are those productions that remind you why you love the theatre? Yeah. Drury Lane Oakbrook’s staggering production of Ragtime is one of the productions.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve seen some Ragtime — from the awe-inspiring, ginormous original production when it relaunched Chicago’s Oriental Theatre in 1998, to the wobbly, yet intimately streamlined national tour a few years thereafter. This production surpasses them all, as it combines the best of both worlds: epic grandeur and a stunning physical production matched with brave intimacy and narrative clarity.
I’ve come to expect high-quality productions from Drury Lane, but nothing of this scale. Director Rachel Rockwell has assembled a completely first-rate cast (I mean, McKinley Carter, one of Chicago’s brightest musical theatre actresses, is playing a bit role in the ensemble!), a top-notch design team, and a full pit orchestra. There’s even an honest-to-God Model T driving around the stage!
To acquire such visual eye candy, Rockwell must have twisted some arms and banked on some long-standing favors. (Let’s hope she didn’t find the funds the way original Ragtime producer — now felon — Garth Drabinsky did.)
But it’s not like Ragtime needs these bells and whistles to make it work — the material stands completely on its own. Terrence McNally has expertly streamlined E. L. Doctorow’s sprawling 1975 novel for the stage, effectively blending the stories of three fictional American families and various actual historical figures into a framework that revolves around events, characters and ideas in U.S. history from the early to mid 1900s. Doctorow’s novel is a highly allegorical piece that can easily come off as preachy and calculated, but the musical manages to dig in and find the heart of the matter.
But McNally can’t take all the credit. Not by a long shot. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) have created one of the most rapturous, melodic pieces of musical theatre written in the past 15 years. Race, segregation, freedom, equality, liberation, justice — this show tackles some dense themes, yet Ahrens and Flaherty make it entirely accessible in their grand musical language.
To service this score, Drury Lane audiences get two leads from the recent Broadway revival: Quentin Earl Darrington (Coalhouse) and Valisia LeKae (Sarah). They are each wonderful. Darrington cuts an imposing figure and has a powerful voice, but there’s a sweet, vulnerable middle in there that makes you deeply empathise with him. And while LeKae might not reach the vocal rafters of originator Audra McDonald — but who would? — she’ll break your heart.
However, to me, the role of Mother has always been the lead — she goes through the greatest emotional journey, resulting in one of the best numbers in the show: “Back to Before.” And Cory Goodrich is a splendidly warm and grounded presence in this role.
The rest of the cast is wonderful, including Mark David Kaplan as Tateh, the Jewish immigrant who’s main goal is to provide a better life for his daughter, but it would take paragraphs to verbally applaud their efforts individually.
However, I do want to note that Max Quinlan, who plays Younger Brother, has one of the most amazing voices in Chicago. And how funny is it that he’s fruitlessly chasing after the gorgeous Summer Naomi Smart, who plays Evelyn Nesbit with a delightfully sardonic edge, considering they both won Jeff awards for their touching performances as Fabrizio and Clara in Marriott Theatre’s The Light in the Piazza late last year (a production I saw twice — read my review). A very different love story, indeed!
Rockwell should win every award she’s eligible for this season — just for the staging of the title number alone. During this prologue — which ranks among the best opening numbers in musical theatre history — the characters compete for a seat in a series of “musical chairs.” A simple trick that completely captures the essence of the show. It’s touches like this by Rockwell that make this show work like it never has before.
It goes without saying that I’m already planning to see this production again. Which says a lot, since you have to carve out half a day when factoring in the drive to the western ‘burbs. But I doubt we’ll see another production of this caliber of this amazing musical any time soon. Unless they bring it to Drury Lane Water Tower in the Loop…
Just floating that idea out there…
“Ragtime” plays through May 23 at Drury Lane Oakbrook. Go here for more information >