As presented by Hoof ‘n’ Horn and the Duke Theater Studies program in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater, the musical theatre classic Ragtime makes many statements, not only about American history but also about political and social issues today. Duke, the elite and prestigious University, is located in the heart of Durham, which has come a long way from the dangerous area it used to be – a poignant reflection of the race wars Ragtime presents in an earlier America. Although the Civil Rights Movement is now long in the past, many issues still arise, from immigration disputes to race relations and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. This production, coordinated by senior Nathaniel Hill, certainly brings all these instances to mind, making Ragtime just as relevant today as it was at its premiere in 1996.

Director Jeff Storer utilized the permanent, single set in a very creative way: it is multifunctional as a harbor, train station, saloon, plantation home, library, etc. This made for efficient and quick scene changes – a definite plus because of the many historical events the show attempts to cover. The large cast was used to the show’s advantage, as well. As many as five different groups of people illustrated divergent points of view all at once on different parts of the stage, creating a visually interesting stage during all the musical numbers that were not solos.

On its second evening, the show got off to a rough start, with microphones and speakers muffling the actors or producing feedback, but after about 20 minutes, these issues were resolved and the show truly started to soar. Alessandra DiMona, who played Mother, stole the show before her first song, “Goodbye, My Love,” was over. She sang with great passion and a very mature voice; one would never guess that she is an English major! Her talent was matched by Jordan Rodriguez, who played Coalhouse Walker Jr. His voice was very well suited to the jazz style of most of the musical, dripping gracefully with soul. (This role is double-cast; with Rodriguez performing on the evenings of April 7 and 13 and the matinee of April 14; Martavius Parrish plays on the evenings of April 12 and 14 and the April 15 matinee.)

The heart of the show is ragtime music, which was performed by the Duke Chamber Players. There was a little insecurity in intonation, and because of microphone and speaker issues the music lacked fullness in relation to the vocalists. Among the singers, there was some insecurity of pitches at the beginning of some of the more transparent numbers, but this was much less noticeable after the intermission, after everyone had had a chance to calm down and make necessary adjustments. Stylistically speaking, the Chamber Players captured the ragtime spirit across the board. Most notable was the brass section: they were able to take on the challenge of syncopation and tight chords, giving the music the extra life jazz demands.

Although intentionally cacophonous at times (and just the slightest bit unintentionally at others), this production of Ragtime was dynamic, energetic, and uniquely executed. As Tateh says in Act II, “People love to see what people do,” and that certainly applies here.

Ragtime continues April 7 and 12-14 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on April 14-15. For details, see the sidebar.