Many musical theatre enthusiasts are understandably unfamiliar with Ragtime, the Tony Award-winning play based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 bestseller. It's been eight and a half years since the Broadway road show was here, and in that time there have been no significant local productions—until now.

Boulder's Dinner Theatre has managed to pull off not only what no one else has attempted to do, but to put together all the required production elements into an inspiring, colorful, and tuneful package.

Wayne Kennedy as Tateh, Jeffrey Nickelson as Coalhouse Walker, and Shelly Cox-Robie as Mother
Wayne Kennedy as Tateh, Jeffrey Nickelson as
Coalhouse Walker, and Shelly Cox-Robie as Mother
Photo: Boulder's Dinner Theatre
BDT artistic director Michael J. Duran has teamed with Denver's Shadow Theatre Company to cast six African-American roles, including Shadow's artistic director Jeffrey Nickelson as Coalhouse Walker. Nickelson shares the lead with BDT's Shelly Cox-Robie as Mother and Wayne Kennedy as Tateh.

The story blends well-known events (the exploration of the Arctic, the assasination of Archduke Ferdinand, the Great War, and the sinking of the Lusitania), themes (mass production, immigration, and jazz), and personalities of the time (Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, and Harry Houdini) without shying away from the issues of racism and violence.

In this way, Ragtime speaks directly to our own age, where war and immigration still dominate the headlines, the cults of celebrity and wealth continue to hold sway, and bigotry remains a common rallying cry among the ignorant, fearful, and greedy.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)
[Inscription permanently engraved in the granite pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.]

Other than Native Americans, almost all of our ancestors came here with similar goals—greater religious, political, and economic freedom—yet at every turn, those who are established here have sought to exclude others from the same chance. The notion of America as the great melting pot can be found in almost every history book, but rarely do such forms of propaganda detail the prejudice and violence that each wave of immigrants and refugees have faced.

Ragtime's poignancy is derived from its sensitive rendering of the tragedies and triumphs of those who have weathered these frightful bouts of "ethnic cleansing." The stories of the three principle archetypal roles—Coalhouse, Mother, and Tateh, the African-American, the W.A.S.P., and the Jew—encapsulate the dialectics of race, money, and religion as they are played out in the U.S.A.

While Denver audiences have long enjoyed the fine works and performances of the Shadow Theatre Company, the city's only professional black theatre troupe, the seamless incorporation of this talented half-dozen into the consistently award-winning ensemble at Boulder's Dinner Theatre will certainly draw new audiences for the smaller, Capitol Hill company.

In his most notable singing role since his heralded take on Billy Eckstein (In Search of Eckstein, earlier in this decade), Jeffrey Nickelson captures the power and the passion of the jazzman and political renegade Coalhouse Walker, Jr. Nickelson's smooth tenor and confident, open-hearted approach carries us through an intense series of dramatic twists and turns to a remarkable, multifaceted catharsis.

As always, Shelly-Cox Robie's crystalline soprano and heart-felt compassion come to the fore—as Mother leaves the walls of her white-linen society and meaningfully engages herself with the two "outsiders," Coalhouse and Tateh—while Wayne Kennedy's expressive tenor and heart-of-gold illuminate the vicissitudes of Tateh's journey from a widower and father selling trinkets on the streets of New York to an abused mill worker and, finally, a successful Hollywood movie producer.

Reynelda Snell's soulful renditions and pathos-wrenching choices as Sara, a single-mother and, later, Coalhouse's wife, are the heart of the production's spiritual river. The esteemed voice of Booker T. Washington finds dazzling clarity in Dwayne Carrington's elocutionary and vocal dexterity.

Indeed, there are a host of noteworthy characterizations, including Joanie Brousseau-Beyette's hilariously ditzy Evelyn Nesbit, Barb Reeve's fearless, rabble-rousing social reformer, Emma Goldman, A.K. Klempke's searing antagonist, Conklin, and Scott Beyette's deep-seated mystic, Houdini.

Linda Morken's detailed costumes accent the scope of the story's class distinctions, fashions, and personalities. Neal Dunfee's six-piece jazz combo runs hot with the rags and cool with the ballads that fill the score.

Ragtime was nominated for 12 Tony's when it opened in 1998, eventually winning four, including Best Original Score and Best Orchestration. If there was anything that prevented it from winning more, it was likely the audiences' and critics' lack of familiarity and comfort with the technique of using the main characters as symbolic representations, or syntheses of whole segments and movements of society. Brechtian in some ways, and tempered in Greek tragedy and Medieval passion plays, the style is firmly rooted in the tribal origins of theatre, where the group wrestles with its greatest hopes and darkest thoughts in a healing ritual. Truely, Ragtime is an American classic.

Boulder's Dinner Theatre's Ragtime runs through May 26th. 303-449-6000.

Bob Bows


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