It is 1906, and the world is marching to a brand new beat. But it isn’t just the rhythms of ragtime music; revolution and change are bubbling in every corner of life. This was a time when history swerved off the beaten path and the lines that divided people were just a little more ragged and blurred. The Actor’s Playhouse brought these uncertain times vividly to life in their sensational production of “Ragtime.”
“Ragtime” debuted on Broadway in 1998, where it ran for two years and was nominated for 13 Tony Awards. Based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow, the show is a sweeping dramatization of life at the dawn of the 20th century for African-Americans, whites and Eastern European immigrants. As representative members of these groups collide onstage, they change each other in ways they could never have imagined, and the world as they know it will never be the same.
The Broadway productions of “Ragtime” were notorious for opulent production values and sheer spectacle. The Actors’ Playhouse did not back down from this extravagant legacy and clearly pulled out all the stops for their remounting of this historical epic. No less than a dozen sets, hundreds of costumes and an enormous cast of 40 made this the largest production ever staged by the company. In such a large-scale endeavor, there is a fine line between a show that is astonishing in its grandeur and one that is self-indulgent and bloated. But at the Miracle Theatre, “Ragtime” was worth every penny.
The plot of “Ragtime” is a bit unwieldy, with three interlocking stories and a first act that drags a bit at times. But it is a credit to the Actors’ Playhouse cast that, despite a running time that approaches three hours, the show never once felt long. This was due in large part to a trio of spell-binding performances.
As immigrant father and artist Tateh, Tally Sessions exuded genuine warmth in his every moment on stage. His sweet chemistry with Mother (Melissa Minyard) was understated but incredibly delightful, particularly in the duet “Our Children.” Mother is a challenging role for any actress, demanding a huge transformation from submissive housewife to empowered woman, but Minyard completely immersed herself in these complexities and achieved moving results. Vocal performances in the production were uniformly remarkable, but Minyard’s soaring numbers stood out even in such stellar company. Her Act 2 ballad “Back to Before” was a bonafide showstopper, not only sung stunningly, but also bursting with emotion.
The true powerhouse of the night, however, was pianist-turned-revolutionary Coalhouse Walker, Jr., portrayed with an impressive mix of charm and pathos by Don Juan Seward. Seward’s stage presence was utterly captivating. His Coalhouse was more than just a compelling character, he was a force. Seward’s performance of “Make Them Hear You” was a call to arms not just for his onstage listeners, but for the audience as well, a rallying cry with resonance for today’s world.
The supporting cast was also full of memorable players. One standout was idealistic young mother Sarah (Sarah Nicole Batts), whose song “Your Daddy’s Son” was a deeply touching, quiet moment in a show packed with bombast. This is not to take away from the chorus; the gigantic ensemble numbers like the opening “Ragtime” and Act 1 closer “Till We Reach That Day” were positively exhilarating.
In light of recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island, “Ragtime” feels almost too timely. Its characters are constantly chasing after the equality and success that are the promise of America, and its ending of unity is all the more poignant for its continued elusiveness in the real world. The Actors’ Playhouse’s production of “Ragtime” served as a reminder that the American dream of liberty and justice for all is still just out of reach.
If You Go:
Where: Actor’s Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, Fla. 33134
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Feb. 22
Cost: $15 student rush tickets (except Saturday and Sunday), $35-59 regular price
For more information call 305-444-9293 or visit actorsplayhouse.org