Triangle Arts and Entertainment – News and Reviews Theatre Dance Music Arts

Ragtime’s Story Is Still Relevant, Despite Uneven Staging, and Should Be Seen

Chris Sams and Leslie Jackson play Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah, in Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre's presentation of <em>Ragtime: The Musical</em> (photo by Scott Suchman)

Chris Sams and Leslie Jackson play Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and his girlfriend, Sarah, in Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre‘s production of Ragtime (photo by Scott Suchman)

In 1998, the New York theater scene was completely and totally abuzz with a little musical stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. It swept some of the bigger awards, such as Best Musical; but a dark horse was lying in the wings, picking up some of the coveted awards such as Best Score, Best Book, and Best Orchestrations; it also won Audra McDonald her third Tony Award® for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. The show was Ragtime: The Musical, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and with book by Terrence McNally, based on E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel of the same name. It’s currently playing in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, Jan. 17th, courtesy Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre.

A sweeping, epic story, it follows three interwoven story lines set in early 1900s America: Mother (Kate Turner), Father (Troy Bruchwalski), and Younger Brother (Donald Coggin), upper class whites; Coalhouse Walker., Jr. (Chris Sams) and Sarah (Leslie Jackson), African Americans; and Tateh (Matthew Curiano) and his Little Girl (Cara Myers/ Leilani Santiago), Jewish immigrants. The opening number introduces us to the three classes of characters, each group huddled close together throughout the stage; and the storylines start out separately but slowly begin to weave into each other, combining and intertwining.

Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s direction and choreography keep the show moving at a relatively brisk pace, though the show has an uneven flow. Certain pivotal moments seem to lack the emotional gravitas that they deserve, and some of the choreography seemed jilted or uninspired. Aside from this, the show has a serious flaw: prerecorded music.

As I mentioned earlier, this particular show took home some big awards around its music: Best Orchestrations and Best Score. The score’s tremendous with significant instrumentation. Here, the music sounds canned, synthed. It also prevents the actors from living wholly in their moments; they must operate within parameters.

Chris Sams tickles the ivories as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (photo by Scott Suchman)

Chris Sams tickles the ivories as ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (photo by Scott Suchman)

Whereas live orchestras provide the ability to embrace the natural ebb and flow of music and emotion, prerecorded tracks feel like a disservice not only to the immense orchestrations, but also the actors on stage, and the audience. I know using tracks isn’t new, nor is it new to this area; but I personally feel like a national tour should deliver stronger than this, especially when tickets climb to $107.14.

Despite this, though, the talent on stage really does shine. Kate Turner’s Mother is a magnificent, strong-willed woman, coming into her own. Turner’s voice nails every nuance.

Leslie Jackson’s Sarah completely stops the show with her wrenching “Your Daddy’s Son,” though the staging kept her face hidden for too long. Much to my chagrin, her climactic moment at the end of Act One was one of the victims to director and choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s uneven staging.

Jillian Van Niel elicits every ounce of perk as Evelyn Nesbit; and the company is tightly knit and works well together. Jerky transitions and undercut plot points aside, the actors really do settle into the scenes, mining every beautifully tragic moment as it unfolds.

Negatives aside, Ragtime should be seen. It’s one of my favorite musicals ever. Those who love historical fiction will find some familiar faces, names, and events woven into an incredibly moving story. Looking back at this time, there’s a lot of progression to covet, but also a lot of similarities on which to focus. How far have we come in 100 years? And how far, yet, do we still have to go?

Ragtime captures the exuberance America at the dawn of the 20th century (photo by Scott Suchman)

Ragtime captures the exuberance America at the dawn of the 20th century (photo by Scott Suchman)

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 13th Raleigh, NC Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare:; Jan. 13th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods:; and Jan. 10th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 12th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre present RAGTIME: THE MUSICAL at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14 and 15 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 16 and 17 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.

TICKETS: $25.14-$107.14, except $20 Student Rush Tickets, sold — for cash only — one hour before curtain to students with ID.


Duke Energy Center Box Office: 919-996-8700 or (information only).

NCT Box Office: 919-831-6941, ext. 6944, or

BSS GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-996-8707,, or

NCT GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6941, ext. 6949;; or

Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or

SHOW: and






Broadway Series South:,, and 2016 Season:

North Carolina Theatre:,,,, and NCT 2015-16 Season:





Ragtime (1975 novel): (Wikipedia).

E.L. Doctorow (novelist, 1931-2015): (official website) and (Internet Broadway Database), (Wikipedia).

Ragtime: The Musical (1996 Toronto, 1998 Broadway, 2003 West End, and 2009 Broadway revival): and (Music Theatre International), (1998) and (2009) (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Stephen Flaherty (music): (official website), (tour bio), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Lynn Ahrens (lyrics): (official website), (tour bio), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Terrence McNally (book): (official website), (tour bio), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

Marcia Milgrom Dodge (director/choreographer): (official website), (tour bio), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).


Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC-based actor, director, and reviewer. A Gainesville, FL native, he earned a degree in Theatre Performance in 2005 from Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. 2015 was a busy year for Gephart. From Feb. 20th to March 1st, he directed and starred in Mortall Coile Theatre Company’s presentation of British playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, The Pride. He directed Raleigh Little Theatre’s May 1-14 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. From Oct. 15th to Dec. 1st, Gephart starred as Frank ‘N’ Furter in the City Stage Co.’s rollicking rendition of The Rocky Horror Show; and on Dec. 11-13 and 18-20, he reprised his critically acclaimed performance as David/Crumpet in Theatre in the Park’s presentation of The SantaLand Diaries. To read more of Jesse Gephart’s reviews, click

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews