Ragtime | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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After six months at the gloriously restored Oriental Theatre (officially the Ford Center for the Performing Arts), Livent's Tony-winning musical is getting a transfusion. The pivotal role of Sarah is now taken by Grammy winner Stephanie Mills, the original star of The Wiz. Sarah, the pregnant lover of Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker, incarnates unconditional love, and Mills delivers powerful renditions of the heartbreaking "Your Daddy's Son" and the soaring "Wheels of a Dream." Her top notes lifted the huge house, though an occasional jazz styling seemed anachronistic. Also new to this stellar ensemble is John Davidson, who embodies the honest confusion of a clueless patriarch as Father, the head of the white family that befriends Sarah. It's fascinating to watch his unearned sense of superiority collapse into vulnerability. Barbara Walsh is a joy to see and hear as Mother, especially in her tenderly elegant exchanges with Peter Kevoian's heartwarming Taveh. Frank Galati's well-tooled staging continues to amaze and touch, delivering a bravura variety that helps overcome the contrivances that connect the characters, while Stephen Flaherty's supple score loses nothing through familiarity. One caveat: as Coalhouse Walker, whose fury fuels the second act, Hinton Battle becomes his own wrath of God when he sings, and his acting is perilously histrionic. In a role this extreme, any excess is overkill. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, 312-902-1400. Through June 13: Tuesdays, 7:30 PM; Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $27.50-$75; "VIP Suite Service" available for $112.50-$125 (call 312-831-2600); day-of-show student/senior rush discounts available. --Lawrence Bommer

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.

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