Review: Ragtime (Griffin Theatre)

| June 26, 2017

Laura McClain, Ben Miller and Larry Baldacci star in Ragtime, Griffin Theatre            

By Terrence McNally (book),
Lynn Ahrens (lyric), Stephen Flaherty (music)
at Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map)
thru July 22  |  tix: $34-$39  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets    

Now extended thru July 22!


The more things change, the more they stay the same


Griffin Theatre presents Ragtime, directed by Scott Weinstein

Griffin Theatre Company presents

Review by Duane Barnes

A 19th century French critic wrote “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And so it is with Ragtime, which opened on Broadway in 1998, about a period in our history covering the first two decades of the 1900’s. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, we are shown the United States as it was, bursting with energy as Immigrants poured onto our shores and African-Americans, only 35 years removed from slavery, all searching for opportunities and their place in the world. There, also, were the industrialists, capitalists and working class, all white, also wanting to grow and prosper and keep their place in the world. And as we perceive our world today, much of this still confounds us.

Autumn Hlava and Jason Richards star in Ragtime, Griffin TheatreRagtime comprises an era, a jumble of hopes and dreams, energetic music, disasters, collisions , and a story of love, hope and tragedy. Its host is an ensemble of talented actors, marvelous voices with an energy that never falters from the first song to the last. The main character and protagonist is Coalhouse Walker Jr (Denzel Tsopnang), a dashing, handsome African-American musician, looking to re-unite with Sarah (Katherine Thomas), the mother of his son, whom he had unwittingly left behind in his adventurous and wandering life. She refuses to see him. He persists. Every week for 5 months, he comes to the home of the White family which has taken her in. As the family gets to know him, and he they, barriers begin to crumble and one theme appears that repeats itself often throughout, “we can never go back to before”.

Immigrants, working conditions and protests make an entrance in multiple forms. Tateh, the Latvian artist (Jason Richards), fighting to survive and care for his daughter, labors at his loom in a weaving mill, almost comatose from the repetitive operation of his machine. In opposition, meanwhile, Henry Ford (Jonathan Schwart), representing all Big Business, encourages his foremen to “speed up the belt a little faster-a little faster”. And Emma Goldman (Neala Barron) powerfully leads the fight for just, decent wages and living conditions for those struggling to make their way in this new country.

Caitlin Collins stars as Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime, Griffin TheatreDenzel Tsopnang and Katherine Thomas star as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah in Ragtime, Griffin Theatre

And racism makes it’s appearance in many ways: a Coalhouse interaction with two local firemen who admire his new Ford roadster but not the driver; how Father (Scott Allen Luke), through his White-only experience, cannot see Coalhouse or Sarah as human as he is. Nor can he understand what Mother (Laura McClain) sees as she allows her horizons to be widened.

Today, we see many of these themes being repeated – disagreements around the “how” and “who” of immigration; racism and “White-only” on the rise; a struggle for a living wage for those lowest on the labor ladder. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. But also “we can never go back to before.”

Thomas and Tsopnang are talented performers, and they blend their roles together seamlessly. Ms. Thomas also has a voice that is powerful as it is beautiful. McClain as Mother evinces the early rising of the independent woman as she voices her views despite her husband’s disbelief in them. Barron brings Emma Goldman to life in a dynamic explosion of damning energy, so much so that she moves one to almost leap out and join her movement. The cast, as an ensemble, gives a flawless, integrated performance, and Doctorow’s written message, as pronounced by Coalhouse, “Make them hear you!” leaves a powerful impression. 

Denzel Tsopnang stars as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in Ragtime, Griffin TheatreKatherine Thomas stars as Sarah in Ragtime, Griffin Theatre

Scott Weinstein has the audience’s rapt attention with a direction that has no pause. Matt Deitchman has added new scaled-down orchestrations that add extra impact to the drama. Scenic designer William Boles provides a stage that aids the smooth interaction of many actors in a limited space. Rachel Sypniewski’s costumes made the period come alive and Coalhouse’s suits are period perfect for the time and character. How Stage Manager Katie Messmore and her staff keeps track of costume changes as well as exits and entrances is a small miracle. Lighting by Alexander Ridgers enhances the action whether dramatic or light. And the musicians, Jermaine Hill, Ellen Morris and Dan Hickey, though a little heavy at times, really encapsulate ragtime, keeping with the period. Lastly, whoever created a roadster out of a piano is a genius.

All in all, Griffin’s Ragtime is a presentation you’ll remember long after you see it. 

Rating: ★★★½

Ragtime continues through July 16th July 22nd at The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $34-$39, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through (check for availability of half-price tickets). More information at time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes 15-minute intermission)

Laura McClain, Ben Miller and Larry Baldacci star in Ragtime, Griffin Theatre

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Larry Baldacci (Grandfather), Neala Barron (Emma Goldman), Joe Capstick (Harry Houdini), Caitlin Collins (Evelyn Nesbit), Danielle Davis (Sarah’s Friend), Matt Edmonds (Younger Brother), Frederick Harris (Booker T. Washington), Autumn Hlava (The Little Girl), Courtney Jones (Kathleen, Brigit and others), Scott Allen Luke (Father), Laura McClain (Mother), Ben Miller (The Little Boy), Jason Richards (Tateh), Jonathan Schwart (Henry Ford), Katherine Thomas (Sarah), Denzel Tsopnang (Coalhouse Walker, Jr.), Marcellus Burt, Arielle Leverett, Alanna Lovely, Juwon Tyrel Perry (ensemble)


Jermaine Hill, Ellen Morris (piano), Dan Hickey (clarinet).

behind the scenes

Scott Weinstein (director), Matt Deitchman (new orchestrations, music supervisor), Jermaine Hill, Ellen Morris (co-music directors), William Carlos Angulo (choreography), KZ Wilkerson (associate director, associate choreographer), William Boles (scenic design), Rachel Sypniewski (costume design), Alexander Ridgers (lighting design), Stephen Ptacek and Ralph Loza (sound design), Annamarie Giordano (properties design), Catherine Allen (production manager), KZ Wilkerson (asst. director, asst. choreographer) Kelly Parker (casting director), Katie Messmore (stage manager), Nick Plakas (asst. stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Category: 2017 Reviews, Ahrens & Flaherty, Den Theatre, Duane Barnes, Griffin Theatre, Musical, Terrence McNally

Comments (0)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

There are no comments yet. Why not be the first to speak your mind.

Comments are closed.