Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Arden Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's reviews of Bearded Ladies' Late Night Snacks Family Cabaret: Green Eggs and A Graham Cracker, Billy the Baaadly Behaving Bully Goat, and Meteor Shower

The Cast
Photo by Photo by Wide Eyed Studios
When Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998 it was a $10 million dollar spectacle complete with fireworks and a working Model T Ford car. Director Terrence J. Nolen's production at the Arden Theatre Company rips away the garish props—the stage has only a few plain benches, two pianos, and a swing—and draws the audience in close. The compelling story shines more brilliantly than ever in this stripped-down music-forward production. Thanks to Nolen's vision and a stellar ensemble, this Ragtime is every bit as spectacular as the original and more emotionally charged than ever.

The musical is an adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's 1975 historical fiction novel about America at the dawn of the 20th century. There are a trio of protagonists; a successful Harlem musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nkrumah Gatling); the matriarch of a wealthy household in New Rochelle known only as Mother (Kim Carson)—; and Latvian Jewish immigrant Tateh (Cooper Grodin). As their stories develop and intertwine, we see how class, gender, and race impact each character's struggle to achieve the American dream. Terrence McNally's book is potent, and the score with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty is a tremendous mix of spirituals, ballads, gospel, and of course, ragtime.

The ensemble bringing Ragtime to life at the Arden is exceptional. Gatling is an electric and endlessly sympathetic Coalhouse Walker. Grodin's understated and earnest performance is riveting. Robi Hager exudes youthful frustration and idealism as Younger Brother. However, it is the women in the cast who make this production truly extraordinary. Carson brings down the house with an absolutely gripping rendition of "Back to Before." When she said, "no one will ever do enough for this child," an audible gasp swept through the audience. Mary Tuomanen is a force to be reckoned with as radical anarchist Emma Goldman. Jessica Johnson's powerful vocals and emotional energy stand out as Sarah's Friend and member of the ensemble.

To keep the audience close to the action, the Arden's F. Otto Haas Stage has been set up in the round with an octagonal floor-level stage. Audience members are arranged on seven sides of the theater and multi-level scaffolding occupies the last section. Several small platforms around the outer walls house additional acting space as well as the scattered orchestra.

Staging in the round can be tricky, but Nolan makes sure there is something visually interesting happening from every vantage point. To that end, the superlative cast is constantly creating small, special moments in every corner of the space. From where I sat we were treated to a fantastic view of Foreman's nimble hands and one silent instant of connection between Coalhouse and Younger Brother as powerful as a ballad.

There are only six designated musicians, but thanks to a bevy of instrument-playing cast members and powerful vocals the score sounds positively lush. Music is central to the plot and theme of Ragtime, so having a cast who can pick up their instruments and play along is wise. Making sure no instrument becomes lost or overpowering could easily become a challenge in such an intricate and complicated setup. Fortunately, music director Vince Di Mura and sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson use some audio magic to create a sound that is rich and well balanced even as the piano is pushed around the stage.

Although it takes place in 1904 and is based on a book written in 1975, the structural inequities that beset the characters in Ragtime are still rampant in America today. It may not offer any solutions, but this moving, intimate production gives the audience a chance to grapple with the weight of these injustices in a way that feels deeply personal. Whether you are in it for the entertainment or the education, this is a production you do not want to miss.

Ragtime runs through October 27, 2019, at Arden Theatre Company, F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, call 215-922-1122 or visit

Jim Hogan (Father)
Kim Carson (Mother)
Colin Rivell (Little Boy/Edgar)
Robi Hager (Younger Brother, Etc.)
Nkrumah Gatling (Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Etc.)
Terran Scott (Sarah, Etc.)
Derrick Cobey (Booker T. Washington, Etc.)
Mary Tuomanen (Emma Goldman, Etc.)
Cooper Grodin (Tateh, Etc.)
Lily Lexer (Little Girl, Etc.)
Scott Greer (Grandfather, Etc.)
Skip Robinson (Harry Houdini, Etc.)
Jamison Foreman (Ensemble)
Rachel Camp (Evelyn Nesbit, Etc.)
Alex Bechtel (Henry Ford, Etc.)
Jessica Johnson (Sarah’s Friend, Etc.)
Nicholas Pontrelli (Harlem Man)
Quinn Cason (Ensemble)
Donovan Bazemore (Coalhouse Walker, III)

Director: Terrence J. Nolen
Assistant Director: Victoria Goins
Scenic Designer: James Kronzer
Costume Designer: LeVonne Lindsay
Lighting Designer: Thom Weaver
Sound Designer: Elizabeth Atkinson
Music Director: Vince Di Mura
Assistant Music Director: Gina Giachero
Music Supervisor / Orchestrator: Ryan Touhey
Choreographer: Steve Pacek
Stage Manager: John Flak
Assistant Stage Manager: Rebekah Norviel