Social issues, music of "Ragtime" strike chord with today's audience

Sep 10, 2014

Credit Peoria Players Theatre

Peoria Players Theatre kicks off their 96th season of shows with the powerful musical "Ragtime". While the show takes place in the early 1900’s, many of the complex social issues raised in the production…still resonate today. Stan Strickler has this review for the Live Theatre League of Peoria. 

Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League. 

As the French proverb says, “The more things change, the more they stay the same,” certainly applies to the musical Ragtime currently playing at Peoria Players.  Although the play takes place at the turn of the last century, it deals with issues still relevant today—immigration, racism, and the economics of inequality.  This is not to say however that the play is merely a political statement, for it is not.  It is an entertaining show filled with wonderful songs, great acting and singing, and beautiful sets and costumes.

The show revolves around a typical American family of some wealth living in New Rochelle, New York who are oblivious to people unlike themselves.  As the opening song says, “There were no Negroes, and there were no immigrants.”  But all of this changes as Mother discovers an abandoned African American baby in the garden and takes it in along with its mother.  The father of the baby, Coalhouse Walker comes every Sunday to propose to Sarah, the mother of the baby.  One Sunday his car is destroyed by prejudiced firemen, an action which leads to riots and retribution.  Added to the mixture is the story of Tateh and his daughter, recent Jewish immigrants from Latvia who also eventually become part of the family.

The director, Steve Bortolotti, has assembled an amazing cast of actors and singers who bring this story to life.  Anne Gonzalez as Mother has a beautiful voice and acting talent as she asserts her independence in a time before women could vote.  Steve Post as Father plays the part of the head of the household well as he comes to realize that times have changed in a way that he has trouble comprehending.  Julien Rouleau as Edgar, the son, has a great stage presence as he begins the story as narrator.  Rounding out the family is Ryan Stevenson-Murphy as younger brother, and he brings wonderful acting talents to the stage as he searches for meaning in his life.  Bobby Khoury as Tateh is touching and sympathetic as he undergoes the hardships of a newly arrived Eastern European immigrant who is trying to find a better life for his young daughter who is ably played by Rachel Kocher.  Barry K. Draper as Booker T. Washington is also quite good as he tries to make peace with a prejudiced society.

Sometimes it is difficult to assemble an integrated cast, but do not fear here.  Juanita Williams as Sarah and Aaron Bolden as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. are fantastic.  Juanita brings a sweetness and light to the role and has a truly beautiful singing voice.  Aaron has a voice that is powerful and rich and he seems to be able to hold a note seemingly forever.  Their songs are truly a wonder.  The song that ends the first act, “Till We Reach That Day,” is a wonderful gospel hymn and was a true climax to the first act with a beautiful obbligato sung by one of the chorus members.  It was one of the highlights of the show filled with one memorable performance and song after another.

The costumes by Sandy Cheeseman depicted the era beautifully, showing the disparate elements of the three groups of people very well.  The minimal sets designed by the director and executed ably by Ken Hupp, were very good and depicted the various scenes of this monumental musical.  Choreographer Michelle Loeffler ably depicted the ragtime dances of the day, most notably in the song “Getting Ready Rag.”  Musical direction by Camilla Tochalauski-Russell was also truly outstanding.  The singing was gorgeous, the orchestra really great - not drowning out the singers as sometimes has happened at recent shows. 

This is a show not to be missed.  It brought the audience to its feet for a well deserved standing ovation.  This show is thoughtful, well acted and sung, and just plain great.