Ensemble Theater’s “Ragtime” a vibrant revival and reminder of ongoing change
It’s a story that brings a fascinating era of history to life, featuring music that made my arm hairs stand on end. Anyone weighing entertainment options over the next few weekends should push Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga’s inspired production of the musical “Ragtime” to the top of their list.
The neighborhoods of turn-of-the-century New York City mingle, clash, and ultimately enrich one another as songs pour out of characters trying to figure out their new identities in the land of promise. They are unwittingly on the brink of forming a new cosmopolitan standard, to be followed by the rest of the booming young United States. In the opening number the audience is introduced to the residents of New Rochelle, the Lower East Side, and Harlem, each embodied by an archetypal main character: the established yet wistful young mother (Paige Salter), the Latvian immigrant father/artist, Tateh (Kyle Dagnan), and the dashing young pianist firing up the city with the bold new sounds of ragtime, Coalhouse Walker (Terrance Wright).
The singing performances were first-rate, with the only quirk to be adjusted being the balance in volume levels between the instrumentalists and the vocalists. At times, it was a bit difficult to make out the soloists’ lyrics over the amplified music coming from the “pit” situated stage right. The score was nicely adapted to a smaller ensemble (piano, Terry Sanford; drums, Erik Gehrke; clarinet, Gordon Inman; synthesizer and music direction, Jennifer Arbogast), and each number came off as tightly rehearsed, carrying the emotion of the play.
The more epic, whole-cast songs ring out with life and energy, often accompanied by playful choreography, while the duets and solos vibrate with sensitivity. The duet, “Sarah Brown Eyes,” between Coalhouse and Sarah, brought tears to my eyes. These actors in particular, Terrance Wright and L-Shante Faunteroy, display incredibly believable chemistry on stage, kindled through their subtle smiles and glances.
I was also impressed by the innocent joy of the two child actors in the cast: Taryn Bracher as the little immigrant daughter, and Ethan Woodlief as her future playmate, the wealthy New Rochelle son. The two had several complex songs to participate in, as well as a few moments requiring them to work as a pair on their own, and they came through solidly. It is always a delight to watch a child adapt to his first role on stage, and Woodlief, in his acting debut, carries himself with natural charm where a certain level of stiffness, silliness, or even shyness would be understandable.
The musical’s book is based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name, and derives much of its historical intrigue and even some of its humor from various cameos of real historical characters woven into the script. The play’s main protagonists encounter the saucy and scandalous Evelyn Nesbit (Monica Woodlief); an immerging illusionist, Harry Houdini (Andrew Durby); the vocal and volatile anarchist, Emma Goldman (Marianna Allen); the bridge-builder, Booker T. Washington (Rudy Foster), and several others. Much of the play’s power hits the audience as we watch the communities do battle, breaking down personal barriers while simultaneously fighting the waves of injustice crashing around them as the world speeds up and undergoes a major sea-change.
The play’s Tony Award-winning songs take on the questions of the times, posing a direct challenge to Victorian customs. Listening to lyrics envisioning hope and change, it’s easy to imagine the ideas Doctorow must have been exploring when he published his novel amid the 1970s cultural climate. The need for a renaissance of activism for justice and neighborhood diversity was pressing at that time, and perhaps the distance of decades facilitates a less combative and volatile setting for exploring tense issues collectively and cooperatively.
It was my pleasure to speak with the director, Garry Lee Posey, following the performance. He felt good about the opening night’s energy, and was surprised when I mentioned the coincidence that “Ragtime” is also playing in Nashville at TSU’s Performing Art’s Center (Circle Players).
“It’s a play that’s definitely experiencing a resurgent moment,” Posey mused, “and the content does feel very timely in the wake of current tragedies like the Ferguson case.” The powerful call for justice in the song, “Till We Reach That Day,” marking the performance’s mid-point, was a sobering reminder that the work of the past century continues, even in our time. “That day” of true cooperation, peace, and justice is still ahead of us.
Plays Thur-Sun through Feb. 1.
Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga
5600 Brainerd Rd.
(inside Eastgate Town Center)