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In ‘Ragtime,’ the Rhythms Of a Changing Nation

Jacob Horn, a student at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, reviews Woodrow Wilson's "Ragtime."

(Photo by Judy Licht)

Last weekend, “the music of something beginning, an era exploding, a century spinning in riches and rags and in rhythm and rhyme” came from the Woodrow Wilson High School stage, as the school gave an engaging and emotional presentation of “Ragtime,” a musical about the societal tensions among races and classes in the United States the early 1900s.

“Ragtime,” based on a 1975 novel by E. L. Doctorow, premiered on Broadway in 1998. It won Tony awards for its songs and its book. The show depicts New York at the beginning of the 20th century, when new technologies, progressivism and social turbulence began to disrupt the status quo. Caught up in the whirlwind are three families representing the Caucasian bourgeois of the New York suburbs, the African American community in Harlem and the newly arrived immigrants from Europe.

The musical has five principal cast members, and each brought something different to the performance. As Father and Mother, Peter Hartmann and Emma Haberman compellingly portrayed the complicated conflict of ideals and moral convictions growing between the white couple and their struggle to maintain their sheltered existence.

Tebo Geo-Mba and Courtney Salter, as African American ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his intended, Sarah, combined soulful vocals with convincing chemistry to create believable and sympathetic characters.

As Latvian immigrant Tateh, Kevin Kelly was a versatile performer, portraying a wide variety of light and dark moments and maintaining a realistic accent.

The show drew considerably from the strength of its sizable ensemble. Each performer seemed to thrive on the energy that fellow cast members exuded throughout the play. This cast did more than “look happy and sing loudly” — they connected with the situations and issues their characters confronted. The power of the ensemble was evident throughout the musical, perhaps most notably during “Till We Reach That Day,” which featured an affecting solo performance from Ashley Nicholas.

Also noteworthy was Georgi Goldstein as vaudeville actress Evelyn Nesbit, who sang about her lover’s murder by her husband in “Crime of the Century.” Funny and lively, Goldstein effectively delivered many of the much-needed lighter moments of this dramatic musical.

As the show drew to a close, Coalhouse urged the audience to “go out and tell the story” of justice sought but denied on the basis of race. Presented just weeks after the election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African American president, this musical was a timely reminder that the struggle for equality is never over. Wilson’s touching and rousing production of “Ragtime” is likely to have inspired audience members to act on his call to make their stories known.

By Washington Post Editors  |  November 25, 2008; 1:48 PM ET
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One can only assume that the hypermodern reinterpretation set in an IKEA was a comment on our hypercapitalistic society. When will we, the consumer of both art and goods, realize that we in our own "Rag Times?" The cynical use of a blind monkey wielding a tambourine, played by underclassman Alex Feinman, was undoubtably the metaphor we were looking for to nail ourselves in the coffin of truth. However, by the end, we shall truly, if not surely, be a "Rag Times" to riches story.

Posted by: nebagakid | December 6, 2008 10:19 PM | Report abuse

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