Arts & Culture

'Ragtime' Revival Theatre show highlights issues still relevant today

Ezekiel Andrew of Hattiesburg, Miss., is playing the lead role of Harlem’s pioneering pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Revival Theatre Company’s production of “Ragtime in Concert.” The musical, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century, will be staged March 8 to 10 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
Ezekiel Andrew of Hattiesburg, Miss., is playing the lead role of Harlem’s pioneering pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. in Revival Theatre Company’s production of “Ragtime in Concert.” The musical, set in New York at the turn of the 20th century, will be staged March 8 to 10 in Sinclair Auditorium at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Three families whose lives intersect at the turn of the 20th century face many of the same trials their descendants still face 100 years later. Issues of racism, classism, immigration and workers’ rights swirl through personal quandaries and political quagmires.

That is the timeless aspect of “Ragtime,” which Revival Theatre Company is presenting in concert from March 8 to 10 in Coe College’s Sinclair Auditorium, with more than 80 people onstage.

Director Brian Glick grew up listening to the 1998 soundtrack and calls it “the quintessential Broadway show,” heightened by the fact that the story remains relevant.

“I think it always will be,” he said. “It doesn’t matter when this is done or would be done, but (it’s) very, very relevant” and has “a very clear image in the story of what’s going on in our country, as well.”

Set in New York, the lives of pioneering African-American ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah, the mother of his child, touch the lives of upper-class white suburbanites Mother and Father, as well as Jewish immigrant and artist Tateh, who brings his daughter from Latvia to chase the American dream.

All of these fictional characters move among the real-life icons who changed the face of the country, from activist Emma Goldman and escape artist Harry Houdini to inventor Henry Ford, financier J.P. Morgan and Arctic explorer Robert Peary.

“There’s such a well-written opening number that displays that,” Glick said. “You know in the first 10 minutes of the show about what is in everyone’s separate world and what the world is trying to do — and that is mesh these cultures together — and how everybody treats that and reacts to that. So it’s really kind of cool, and then the story takes off after that. It’s really smart how they put it together.”


Glick and musical director Cameron Sullenberger, the professional troupe’s co-founders, had planned to stage “Ragtime” a couple of years ago. The production rights were pulled, however, because a national tour of the show was coming through the area.

This time around, the rights were available and the timing was right.

“It just seemed like all the components were lining up,” said Glick, 31, of Cedar Rapids. “When we do a concert production, we look for a show that’s going to have good attributes for a chorus, and this show definitely does. There are very few musicals that do, so the list is short and this one was still on it, so it just seemed like, ‘Let’s try it again.’”


“In concert” doesn’t mean the cast stands still with their music and scripts propped up on stands, he said. Instead, the principal actors will appear in full costumes, the orchestra and chorus will be onstage, and the action will be enhanced by video projections and lighting effects, rather than traditional scenery pieces. Props will be at a minimum, and a Model T car that’s typically used in fully staged productions won’t be rolled onto the Sinclair stage, but will be represented another way.

“It has production values,” Glick said of the staging. “We don’t have all the bells and whistles necessarily. We either do something in its place in a different, creative way or we just ignore it as a whole.”

Alvon Reed is choreographing a mix of musical staging, stylistic movement and dance. “It creates a really interesting, dynamic presentation,” Glick said.

Concert versions are more common in New York, but are beginning to catch on in the Midwest, too, he added. This is the third large musical Revival has presented this way, beginning with “Parade” at the Scottish Rite Temple in 2015 and “Evita” in 2016 at Sinclair Auditorium, both in Cedar Rapids.

Amy Friedl Stoner, who starred in “Evita,” was in the audience for “Parade.”

“One of the things that I find really interesting is, there’s not really a set, but when I would see ‘Parade,’ I didn’t even notice there wasn’t a set,” she said. “And I can’t speak to ‘Evita’ because I was in it, but in watching the video, (Scott Olinger’s) lighting and the projections add this huge element — you’re not just sitting watching a recital.”



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“Ragtime” is gigantic in scope and structure, which is probably why it isn’t done very often, Glick said.

“The show is big, but what’s really big about the show is the story and the score. We don’t have all these moving set pieces and giant this, big that — anything real flashy. It’s the story. The characters are larger than life, and their stories and the score. It’s very Americana.”

It’s also hard to produce on a local level, he said, because of the complexity of the music, and the need to find African-American actors for the key roles. Revival Theatre hired Ezekiel Andrew of Hattiesburg, Miss., to step into Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s shoes in what Glick calls “an extremely difficult role.”

The 1998 Broadway production garnered 13 Tony Award nominations, winning for best book, best original score, best orchestrations and best featured actress honors for Audra McDonald. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who will be performing with the University of Iowa Symphony Orchestra at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City on March 28, received a best actor nomination for his star turn as Walker.

“He is my idol,” said Andrew, 30. “Ever since I knew of this show, I’ve really looked up to him and have tried to — not pattern my career after his — but anytime I hear a new song, I want to see if Brian Stokes Mitchell has done it first. He’s the guy. He fills a room, and he has a diaphragm as big as a whale — that man can hold a note forever. I would love to just shake his hand and say, ‘You, sir, have changed my life in this role, with what you’ve done with this role.’”


Andrew previously played Coalhouse Walker in Utah, and when a friend and fellow cast member told him Revival was looking for an actor for the lead role, he jumped at the chance. “It was Jan. 1, and I said, ‘Yes — let the blessings start raining in. This is a good sign,’” he said.

He describes Walker as “the life of the party — Mr. Charisma, Mr. Smooth. He’s Mr. Whatever-you-need-him-to-be. He doesn’t meet a stranger — very cool, calm, collected, talented (but) he’s flighty at this stage in his life.

“He just got a good education as a musician and he’s on the road playing gigs, meeting women, enjoying the good life, and so he’s a very temporary kind of guy — kinda like a rolling stone. That changes when he meets Sarah. She makes him realize his dreams and his passions for a life that he never had to lie with her.”


Finding out they’ve had a child together “transforms his way of thinking about the world,” Andrew said. Walker realizes he needs to create stability for them, with a home and regular income.

His American dream involves owning a car, but the notion of a black man owning a car still is foreign in the post-emancipation society.

“As the story goes on, we see the dream turned to despair,” Andrew said.

Buying a car brings nothing but heartache and trouble into his family’s life, turning him into a vigilante as he seeks justice against the white men who have tried to destroy them.

Eventually, Walker realizes his legacy lies with his son, which becomes his “redeeming grace,” Andrew said.

Sarah, too, matures through the show.

“She’s gentle-natured, but she has a hidden strength,” said Trina Harris, 29, of Cedar Rapids, who stars in the role originated by Broadway powerhouse Audra McDonald.

“At first she’s a little naive and kind of fragile, but she comes into her own as a woman and she becomes proud of Coalhouse. She doesn’t want to see him disappointed — she wants to support him. ... She’s his support system, but kind of silently doing that.”

Mother (Amy Friedl Stoner) steps in to support Sarah early in her journey, taking the young mother and child into her upper-class household while Father (Tim Riven) is off on an Arctic adventure.

“So he goes off for a year to explore for fun, and before he leaves, he says to her: ‘You know nothing much changes in a year — you’ll be fine.’ And of course the irony is that everything changes,” said Stoner, 35, of Cedar Rapids.


That’s the first little crack in the life to which she’s become accustomed. Then she meets Sarah and the baby, and decides to bring them into her home, and the crack begins to open up, Stoner said, until she begins doing “very brave things” outside of societal norms, becoming “sort of an unexpected activist in her own way.”

The music is a character all its own, Andrew said.

Glick agreed, calling the show the largest one he’s directed, with “all characters and the amount of stories that have to be told.”

“It’s a challenge in an exciting way,” Glick said.

“The music takes on a personality of its own,” Andrew added, “when you get a lot of these motifs or themes that just keep coming back and keep coming back and literally hitting your heart and emotions over and over and over again. When done tastefully and correctly — I think we’re doing an excellent job of that — I think people will leave talking about how beautiful the music was.”

If you go

• What: Revival Theatre Company presents “Ragtime in Concert”

• Where: Sinclair Auditorium, Coe College, 1220 First Ave. NE, Cedar Rapids

• When: 7:30 p.m. March 8 to 10

• Tickets: $40 general admission, $20 student rush on show days; Orchestra Iowa Box Office, (319) 366-8203 or

• Details: Revivaltheatre

Comments: (319) 368-8508;



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