Metropolis Ragtime Grabs Your Heart and Moves Your Soul
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, a professional theater in the Chicago suburbs on Arlington Heights.
Like any theatre company, they have had ups and downs and their fair share of growing pains. But with their new production of the Broadway musical Ragtime, Metropolis certainly looks as if they are on a path of real growth, achieving news levels of quality.
Ragtime is far and away the best production Metropolis has ever put on and you should go see it. It’s that simple.
However, for those who want a little more information from a review than a few sentences, I’ll elaborate.
The musical Ragtime is based on a 1975 novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow. The stage adaptation features music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and book by Terrence McNally.
After having its world premiere in Canada in 1996, Ragtime debuted on Broadway in 1997 with direction by the renowned Frank Galati. It was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical and won the awards for Best Book and Best Original Score.
Taking place at the turn-of-the-century, circa 1906, Ragtime deals with the subjects of racism, immigrant rights, women’s rights, the divide between the wealthy and the poor, and the politics of the time.
Specifically, the musical focuses on the stories of a black couple looking for respect and acceptance, a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter looking for a place to call home, and a white upper-class family being torn on whether they should be involved in the dealings of these outcasts that are so foreign to their privilege community in New Rochelle in the Southeastern part of the state of New York.
With the proper direction and a talented cast, Ragtime can be incredibly powerful and moving. Both are evident in the Metropolis production. There were moments in the show that literally made me gasp out loud. And, I’ve seen the show before! That’s how impressive this Metropolis production is.
There are multiple storylines going on with Ragtime, the three major ones cited, as well as a few minor ones. All of the stories are interconnected in some way.
The Caucasian family from New Rochelle are the central characters of the intersecting stories. Rather than names, the family members are identified as Mother, Father, Younger Brother (to Mother), Little Boy, and Grandfather. The generality of their names seems to be meant remind the audience that they represent an entire Caucasian society.
Most of the other characters in the musical do have names. Some of them are famous, such as Booker T. Washington and Harry Houdini. Most are fictional characters, but their stories are very true in terms of reflecting the times and the challenges faced by those who are not privileged white Christian men.
STANDING WITH DIGNITY
One of the plotlines revolves around Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a talented Ragtime pianist from Harlem. He is educated and cultured, not what racists like to think black men could ever be. He is devastated when Sarah, the love of his life, disappears.
Sarah, who left in secret because she pregnant, is living in New Rochelle with Mother and her family – who have taken her in. Coalhouse embarks on a mission to get her back. Afterall, he loves her. A true and powerful love.
Meanwhile, a Jewish immigrant named Tateh has brought his young daughter to America after the death of her mother. He is an artist who does have false beliefs that he’ll get rich in America, but he expects to be able to provide a happy and comfortable life for his daughter.
Art, however, is not what the city of New York wants from Tateh. So, he must navigate the oppressive demands of the city, toiling long hours in sweatshops for pennies and keeping his daughter literally tied to him with a rope because there is such a threat of people stealing children with illicit intentions.
Coalhouse, Sarah, and Tateh are all the focus of incredible bigotry. It leaves them fighting for their very survival. When tragedy strikes Coalhouse and Sarah, the pianist decides to take action against – drastic action.
There are substories that also involve Houdini, vaudevillian star Evelyn Nesbit, political activist Emma Goldman, and civil rights leader Booker T. Washington.
While Korey White’s portrayal of Coalhouse Walker Jr. is not the only reason to see Ragtime, it is a performance so good it would be reason enough on its own to see the show. His voice moves your soul, his eyes reveal his.
DEMANDING THE SPOTLIGHT
Brennan Martinez also provides a masterful performance as Mother. Her voice exhibits tones of both musical theatre and opera to great effect. And her character work is simply stunning as well. She is a true leading lady and a blessing to the Metropolis stage.
She shows us the pain women had to endure to conform to a society where men dictate all, and the hope and the joy she sees in how things could be. Her rendition of the song Back to Before was
Josh Frink as Tateh made me fall in love with a character that had never much moved me in prior productions I’ve seen. His performance was magnificent. The authenticity of his emotions and the sheer power of his conviction made me feel his character’s desperation, pain, fears, hopes, and joys as if they were my own.
Coalhouse’s love interest Sarah is skillfully played by Chloé Khaleeah Keira Johnson, whose voice blends beautifully with White’s. Connor Murray makes an excellent Father – always polite and politically correct (for the times) but clearly in need of having his eyes opened to the reality of what others endure.
Although she doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, Leah Brock captures the attention of the audience as Sarah’s Friend, another black woman facing oppression and violence at the hands of the police and government. Her solo work in the Act 1 closer Til We Reach that Day makes her one of the most memorable parts of a show filled with outstanding moments.
Other standouts in the cast include Jackson Mikkelsen as the awkward Younger Brother searching for what will give his life meaning, Zachary Linnert as Harry Houdini, Kaity Pachetto as Evelyn Nesbit, and Mark Anderson as Grandfather.
The production also features fine outings from Archer Geye as Little Boy, Rhea Greer as Little Girl, Sarah Sapperstein as Emma Goldman, and Aaron Reese Boseman as Booker T. Washington.
The talented ensemble features Anania Williams, Mariah Allyn White, Colin McGonagle, Eleanor Ekovich, Shaun Peters, Natalie Rhian Henry, Angel Diaz, Daniel Dauphin, Rohan Rhys, and Zeon Mickinley Idowu.
CALLING THE SHOTS
Helming this fine creation is directed by Jerrell L. Henderson. His vision, brought to life by these talented performers, deserves a standing ovation – which it most certainly received on the night being reviewed.
Aiding Henderson in bringing such an emotional piece of art to the stage are music director Aaron Zimmerman and choreographer Shaun Peters. I was particularly impressed with the quality of the voices and the musicians.
Lighting design is noticeably well done thanks to the talents of Adam Jezl-Sikorski. Costumes and wigs achieve new standards for the theatre thanks to Jazmin Aurora Medina. Scenic design by Eric Luchen uses the space well. On the night of review there were some technical issues with the sound system, however sound design overall seemed on point by Abby Nettleton.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this perfect production, but it is represents a new era for Metropolis. Ragtime is a huge leap forward in terms of achieving the quality that Metropolis has always been committed to delivering.
As new artistic director Brendan Ragan joins executive direct Brookes Ebetsch in leading Metropolis into the next phase of Metropolis Performing Arts Centre’s growth, I look forward to seeing what journeys they will take us on. If the quality of Ragtime is any indication, it should be a very fun and rewarding ride.
I highly recommend purchasing tickets for Ragtime at Metropolis. You’ll be amazed how good it is.
Located at 111 W. Campbell Street, Metropolis Performing Arts Centre is an exquisite cultural oasis in the beautiful Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights with plenty of nearby places to dine. It is easily accessible by car or public transportation, with a Metra station a mere few blocks away. There is ample free parking in the area.
Performances run Thursdays through Sundays, with a closing date of June 4. I wouldn’t put off getting your reservations. It’s an impressive show. Run time with intermission is 2 hours and 45 minutes – but you won’t feel it.
All evening performances are at 7:30 PM. Sunday performances are matinees at 3 PM. There is a walkup bar for purchasing refreshments before the show and at intermission. Drinks that are purchased at the service bar are allowed in the theatre. Programs are online only.
For tickets and information visit www.MetropolisArts.com or call the box office at (847) 577-2121
Photo credit: Jennifer Heim
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
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