By Jordan Wright (Photo/Keith Waters)
Thirty-seven performers make up the tremendous ensemble in The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s latest production, a touching story of intersecting lives.
Set in the early part of the 20th century, author E. L. Doctorow focused his novel “Ragtime” on three distinct elements of American society: black America, on the rise as a strong middle class in northern cities; middle- and upper-class white America; and Jewish immigrants bent on hard work and assimilation to their newfound country. The Little Theatre of Alexandria has chosen director Michael Kharfen to oversee a production that beautifully blends the tale with Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics and Stephen Flaherty’s music.
The characters are familiar to us all. There’s capitalist foe and union organizer Emma Goldman, a reformer from the days when child labor was the norm and harsh working conditions prevailed. Then there’s Harry Houdini, the Jewish immigrant who became the world’s most famous magician. Finally, we have Evelyn Nesbitt, the great beauty who carved out her vaudeville career on a velvet swing while paramour to a millionaire.
Iconic Americans like Booker T. Washington, J. P. Morgan and even Henry Ford make cameos in this story too. In Doctorow’s sweeping saga of the landscape of America, ordinary people become extraordinary as their lives intersect and they are tested for their capacity to love.
It harkens back to the turn of the 20th century, a time when ladies of a certain class carried parasols and wore stiff corsets under voluminous dresses. Ragtime was sweeping the country, and a certain Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Malcolm Lee), a Scott Joplin avatar, was creating a new sound that crossed over into white high society.
Father is off on a polar expedition with Admiral Peary when Mother discovers a black newborn child abandoned in her garden and goes about finding the boy’s mother.
“I never thought they had lives besides our lives,” she confesses while searching for the indigent, unwed mother.
When at last she and her son, Edgar, find Sarah (Aerika Saxe), she offers Sarah the comfort of their home — letting humanity overtake her Victorian rigidity.
Shaun Moe plays the stiff Victorian-era Father, secure in his position and his marriage. Jennifer Lyons Pagnard is Mother, a wife learning to have her own say.
Scenic designer J. Andrew Simmons has created a dramatic Industrial Age backdrop of massive connecting clock gears, which express the passage of time. Meanwhile, scene changes are cleverly accomplished by painted panels that unfurl from the rafters to denote a sense of place. The lighting design team of Ken and Patti Crowley sets the tone with a wide array of colors and effects to change the mood and heighten the drama.
Known as one of the most important musicals ever to grace Broadway, this production does the author’s material (28 brilliant tunes!) justice with a strong and interconnected cast who sing their faces off. Pagnard demonstrates that she can infuse a leading role with fresh vigor much as she did as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd,” for which she won a WATCH award for best leading actress in a musical.
The ensemble’s voices reflect the powerful emotions of this poignant story of hope, redemption, human rights and a call for justice. Of particular note is the exquisite voice of Sarah’s Friend, played by Corisa Myers, who has a brief but deeply affecting solo in “When We Reach That Day.”
There is a beautiful flow to the dancing choreographed by Ivan Davila. Keep an eye peeled for Sherrod Brown, who is a standout.
The Little Theatre has taken on one of its most ambitious productions to date with “Ragtime,” and from the sold-out sign on press night, it’s already proven to be a great success.
“Ragtime” runs through February 15 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. For tickets and information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.