"Ragtime," based on E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, comes from the powerhouse pair of Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), with libretto by the late, great Terrence McNally (an early COVID casualty). Taking place, according to the program, in "Ragtime America, 1908-1913," the story follows the interwoven experiences of three fictional families.
Flaherty and Aherns are a wonderful writing team, and the songs of "Ragtime" are a pleasing mix of period pastiche (including, of course, plenty of ragtime rhythms) and epic ballads (most memorably "Wheels of a Dream"), with lyrics ranging from winkingly snarky to achingly poignant and rousing. The structure has the players sometimes serving as omniscient narrators, introducing their characters in the third person, giving the effect of a lively history lecture.
At show's start, in WASP-y New Rochelle, New York, Father (Noel Anthony), Mother (Christine Dwyer), The Little Boy (Jackson Janssen/Joshua Parecki), Younger Brother (Sean Okuniewicz) and grumpy Grandfather (Colin Thomson) live a life of sheltered ignorance and privilege. When Father heads off on a yearlong expedition to the Arctic, however, his wife, young son and brother-in-law all begin to have their eyes opened to a wider world, with empathetic Mother chafing against her genteel domestic binds and awkward Younger Brother longing to find purpose and excitement.
In Harlem, Black pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nkrumah Gatling) is a rising star, thanks to his talent for the hot new musical style — that irresistibly, deliciously syncopated ragtime. Reunited with his true love Sarah (Iris Beaumier), the couple has an infant son and high hopes, only to be thwarted by racism, violence and injustice everywhere they turn. Their tragedy becomes a rallying cry for others who see themselves in Coalhouse's righteous anger.
And in the squalid tenements of the Lower East Side, Jewish Latvian immigrant Tateh (Leo Ash Evens) and his daughter (Sydney Walker Freeman/Ruth Keith) arrive in America full of optimism and dreams of prosperity but are soon challenged by antisemitism, poverty and exploitation.
As these characters cross paths and become entangled, they encounter historical figures of the era, including illusionist Harry Houdini (Keith Pinto), activist and writer Emma Goldman (Suzanne Grodner), automobile industrialist Henry Ford (Thomson again), educator and intellectual Booker T. Washington (Michael Gene Sullivan), and celebrity beauty Evelyn Nesbit (Melissa Wolfklain), who's part of the high-profile "Crime of the Century." Though the scandal is played for sharp laughs in the show, in real-life, it should be noted, Nesbit was the victim of abuse.
While "Ragtime" is ambitious in scope, Kelley and his crew offer a winningly streamlined version. Most of the cast plays multiple roles, with great success. The scenic design by Wilson Chin, too, is minimal, with evocative lighting design by Pamila Z. Gray. The orchestra, led by William Liberatore, sounds fabulous, and costumes by B. Modern are suitably sumptuous. Oh, and there's a shiny Model T Ford.
Most importantly, the cast gives excellent performances across the board, with standouts including Gatling, who captures Coalhouse's charisma, pain, and dignity; Okuniewicz as the yearning, lost Younger Brother; and Leslie Ivy as Sarah's Friend, offering almost unbelievably beautiful vocals on "Till We Reach That Day." While Dwyer is surely terrific, at the performance I attended, Mother was played by understudy Marie Finch, who did a lovely job. Best of all is when all the players sing together in a truly awe-inspiring display of vocal talent and power.
"Ragtime" offers a snapshot of United States mythos: the dawn of the 20th century; the idea of a "Great American Melting Pot" (to quote lyrics from another Ahrens project); rampant capitalism alongside progressivism; baseball and vaudeville; the not-so-calm before the explosive First World War. But while there is that nostalgia factor, there is also the realization that the issues depicted on stage — racial prejudice, police brutality, antisemitism, sexism, xenophobia, the struggle for workers' rights, to name just a few — still loom large in today's America.
The perky conclusion of "Ragtime" is bittersweet after the pain and violence that's unfolded. We're glad for those characters who do get their happy endings, and embrace their hopes for a better future, but we know all too well that it has proved elusive for so many more than a century later. The struggle ever continues, the production suggests, but so too must striving toward the dream. As TheatreWorks Artistic Director Tim Bond puts it in his program notes, "one of the superpowers great theatre possesses is the ability to post important questions about our human potential and societal change without trying to give easy answers." The question of "whether there is any realistic hope coming out of this story," he writes, "... lies more with the audiences that witnessed it than with the story itself."
"Ragtime" runs through June 26 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro. St., Mountain View. More information is available at theatreworks.org.