REVIEW of Ragtime The Musical, and a Quick Shout Out To Kathleen
By freelance writer Michael P Coleman
The end of the first half of Ragtime The Musical, playing at the UC Davis Health Pavilion in Sacramento through Sunday, August 13, is a gut punch from which I will not soon recover. The show may be the most powerful musical theatre production I’ve ever seen.
Ragtime’s definitely not for the faint of heart. A friend of mine told me that the couple sitting next to him didn’t return for the show’s second half. Nor is it for children who haven’t been prepped for the show’s vile while nonetheless necessary language. It deftly incorporates many the racial epithets of which you’re probably familiar.
Those words and phrases were much more commonly used in early 20th century America, when Ragtime’s white American, eastern European immigrant, and African American characters come together. That said, when we’re still recovering from — and experiencing — knees on necks, maybe those epithets roll off the tongue today as easily as they did then.
Seemingly without effort, this Ragtime production gives context for many many of the racist tropes which most of us have heard over the years. If you see the show, you’re going to get a little uncomfortable, and that feeling will arise fairly quickly. But it’s a discomfort we need to feel.
Tony nominee Brian Stokes Mitchell, who originated the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., perhaps said it best:
“Ragtime is about how we get through ugliness, how we talk together, work together, get through it together,” Mitchell said. “The show takes us to the next steps. That’s what our country needs to do. See this show, acknowledge the language, but don’t censor it. This show results in catharsis because of what it says, and what the audience of all kinds of people experience together.”
Mitchell was right. During Tuesday night’s intermission, a 77 year old white grandmother, Kathleen, who was sitting just behind me struck up a conversation. She was there with her granddaughter, and her family’s been in Sacramento for five generations. We talked about our common experiences of surviving the heat of a Sacramento summer and our shared love of all things Christmas before I gently asked her for her thoughts about the show. We finished that conversation with our eyes welling up again, as they had during the first half of the show.
As we wrapped up our brief talk, I realized that the chat was one that we both seemed to need, an affirmation of sorts that we have moved past the racial strife depicted in Ragtime…at least a little bit. As the lights dimmed before the start of Ragtime’s second half, we promised to try to find each other during Broadway At Music Circus’ production of Rent in two weeks, which will close out their season.
It wasn’t an empty promise for me, but I had trouble thinking about Rent. In that moment, I had to take a couple of deep breaths to help me get through the second half of Ragtime.
It didn’t disappoint. Stick around until the end. The payoff is more than worth it, but you’ll need a little stamina to get there!
Ragtime The Musical’s standouts included Kevin Stephen McAllister as Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Teal Wicks as Mother, Andrew Samonsky as Father, and Josh Grissetti as Tateh. Benjamin Pajak, as The Little Boy, lets audiences know that we haven’t seen the last of him, during his second Broadway At Music Circus production of the season. Wicks’ performance of “Back To Before” is a showstopper in the grandest of traditions.
But my God, Emilie Kouatchou as Sarah has to be seen. Heard. Experienced. Andra McDonald originated the role on Broadway, and I know she’d be proud. You will clamor for every stage-bound second of Kouatchou, and her voice is a wonder, especially during “Your Daddy’s Son” and “Wheels Of A Dream,” performed to perfection with McAllister.
To close, let me echo Mitchell:
See this show.
And I’ll see you again in a couple of weeks, Kathleen.
Ragtime The Musical runs through Sunday, August 13. Tickets are available at broadwaysacramento.com.