Trinity Rep is closing it’s season with the huge musical, “Ragtime,” a story of rising and falling, and rising again. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Bill Gale says that despite some overdone plot lines it is a powerful story done with professional grace and power.
Back in 1998 when “Ragtime” made it’s Broadway debut with much ado, including a said to be $10 million budget, it was definitely the talk of the theatrical town. And, yes, it did win some Tony Awards, and ran a couple of years on the Big White Way. But “Ragtime” never made its money back and was kind of looked at by many as an overdone piece of work. Too long, too self important, they said. Some, including myself, thought that despite wonderful acting and singing, “Ragtime” was all too much, a big deal needing to lose weight, to make it more meaningful, clearer, crisper. Well, now we “Ragtime” put-down folk have gotten much of what we’ve wanted.
Directed with great vibrancy, and true meaning by Trinity’s leader, Curt Columbus, the long wait is over. This production is nothing less than a winner, taking on a difficult project and making it work. With a hard-charging 17-member cast, on a crisp and very useful theater-in-the-round set by Providence’s Eugene Lee (who did the Broadway version, too) this “Ragtime” comes as close as possible to this long story of struggling and working and getting kicked down. And getting up again.
Taken from the novel by E. L. Doctorow. this work is nothing less than a sharp look at America, and it’s troubles. With vibrant excitement it careens through battles that were huge a century ago – and still exist today. It tackles the slow but sure rise of women in the world. It watches immigrants come to blessed America, only to find it sometimes cold and hard. And, mostly, it covers that ever-ongoing battle of African-Americans to receive full citizenship.
With exquisite music led by conductor Michael Rice, all of this is filled with singing that is forceful and ever-so honest. Rachael Warren is wonderful as a wealthy mother who must content with a old-fashioned husband and recover a black baby despite all the anger for that. Rebecca Gibel is a sexy hoot plowing through being a lady of the evening with comedy and meaning both. And then, there’s Mia Ellis as a wife and mother a century ago facing all the trials and needs of a black women in a miserable white world. She is plaintive and needy, but strong as only a mother can be.
Oh, yes, the men. Mauro Hantman is much believable as the wealthy white man who means well enough but can’t see the real story all around him. Stephen Thorne plays several roles but the very best is Houdini, the great and hilarious magician.
Then there’s first and foremost a superb Wilkie Ferguson 3rd who plays a black man trying heartily to fight against all of the racial hatred back a hundred years ago. He’s honest and true and makes the main question put forth by “Ragtime.:” Just how far have we come from those days of racism and hatred?
This fine production at Trinity doesn’t answer that question. But it sure makes you think about it, even amid all the wonderful acting, singing and laughter, too.
“Ragtime” continues thru May 27 at Trinity Rep. Bill Gale reviews the performing arts for Rhode Island Public Radio.