To the casual theater observer, it would seem that we only started applying the lessons in historical musicals to contemporary life when Hamilton entered the cultural zeitgeist. And while Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnum opus has certainly drawn in new listeners, the truth is that composers, from Stephen Sondheim in Pacific Overtures to Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg in Les Misérables, have used past events to explain current ones for decades. In the trying times we currently live in, no musical does this better than Ragtime, adapted from the E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name by book writer Terrence McNally, composer Stephen Flaherty, and lyricist Lynn Ahrens.
In a new production at Ford’s Theatre directed by Peter Flynn, this story of three communities intersecting outside New York City in the early 1900s fills Washington’s most historic stage with a sense of yearning for a better tomorrow amid a stormy present. A wealthy white family, referred to simply as Mother, Father, Younger Brother, and Little Boy, takes in a black washwoman, Sarah, after she gives birth. Sarah’s fiancé, Coalhouse Walker Jr., makes his living as a piano player in Harlem and buys a Model T Ford, only to see it destroyed by bigots and, along with it, his entire worldview.
Meanwhile, Tateh and his daughter—immigrants from Eastern Europe—struggle to find their place in their new nation. Real figures like illusionist Harry Houdini, socialite Evelyn Nesbit, and educator Booker T. Washington also appear, interacting with the characters over the course of the show. Amid political and personal turmoil, each group takes on a different battle for justice: Mother for women’s rights, Coalhouse for racial equality, and Tateh for immigrants’ rights.
Flynn’s best decision in this production is in his casting: He hired four of the region’s best vocalists, equipped with the dramatic skills to fully embody the empathetic characters, to lead his cast. Nova Y. Payton, who’s already proven her vocal chops to local audiences in productions of Dreamgirls, and Caroline, Or Change, shocks audiences into silence with her powerful performance as Sarah. While serenading the child she almost abandoned in “Your Daddy’s Eyes” and “Wheels of a Dream”—songs with very different messages—she tells him of her worries and her hopes, which echo in the minds of contemporary audiences after she meets her tragic end.
As Mother, Tracy Lynn Olivera brings some humor to the woman at the center of the show, struggling to adapt to the constant changes in her life, as does Jonathan Atkinson as Tateh, who is so determined to escape his past that he invents a new identity for himself when he begins to work in film production.
In the role of Coalhouse, however, Kevin McAlister does all that and more. Over the course of the show’s two hours and forty-five minutes, he conveys emotions from the highs of love to the lows of profound grief while hitting every note and anchoring the production during a second act plot twist in which the traditional narrative drama turns into a hostage crisis.
It’s fitting that McAlister sings the show’s final solo because the story he conveys, one of a successful black man brought down by societal forces that won’t acknowledge anything about him beyond the color of his skin, remains the most relevant a century later. As he implores his followers to “make them hear you,” he pushes the message through the fourth wall and demands that the audience do the same.
With an audience made up of regular theatergoers and children in town on class trips, Ragtime, a show that celebrates the commonalities of humanity, appeals equally to both groups. Keeping Doctorow’s happy, albeit unrealistic ending gives the audience a sense of closure to the story, but with one slight costume change, the final image of Flynn’s production reminds viewers that the issues the play uncovers have yet to be fully resolved.
It’s these moments of connection, emphasized in the book by Terrence McNally—the kind of playwright who will have you cheering one moment and sobbing the next—that makes Ragtime such a good fit for Ford’s.
At Ford’s Theatre to May 10. 511 10th St. NW. $18-$71. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.