The mere thought of producing “Ragtime” in a sub-99-seat theater boggles the imagination. After all, the epic musical, based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, is typically a big-budget enterprise with a cast of dozens and the kind of razzle-dazzle technical effects that made many early critics dismiss it as sheer flummery.
But Zeke Rettman's minimalist staging at the Hudson Backstage proves surprisingly satisfying, not to mention very much in keeping with Terrence McNally's cleverly reductive book, which stitches Doctorow's complicated story into a bold sampler of fin de siècle America. And when the layers of pomp, pageantry and production values are stripped away, the up-close and intimate perspective lends immediacy to the show's themes. Granted, Rettman sometimes seems to have wedged his sprawling cast onto this small stage with a shoehorn and WD-40, but with the players' help, he largely overcomes the constrictions of the space, as does choreographer Stephanie Simpson, whose scaled-down dance sequences blend nicely into the whole.
All of the lead performers are workmanlike, and all are superb vocalists, although a few settle for stock portrayals rather than delving beneath their obvious archetypes. Among the crucial exceptions are Kevin Yarbrough, who simmers with dignity and righteous rage as Coalhouse Walker, the Harlem jazz pianist turned radical, and Rachae Thomas, who shines as Coalhouse's doomed lover, Sarah. Despite a somewhat peripatetic "Latvian" accent, Jon Jon Briones brings considerable passion to the role of Tateh, the immigrant who undergoes Job-like trials before finding the America of promise. Particularly winning is Amy K. Murray, who portrays immigrant activist Emma Goldman with compelling world-weariness and untrammeled spirit.
Yet the standout is Kelly L. Dodson's wonderful musical direction, which combines the cast's sublime voices into spectacular musical numbers guaranteed to give goose bumps. This ingeniously compressed production provides a welcome opportunity to bask in Lynn Ahrens' lyrics and Stephen Flaherty's score, which have never sounded better.
"Ragtime," Hudson Backstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 5. (323) 960-1055 or www.plays411.com/ragtime. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
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