“Ragtime: The Musical,” based on E.L. Doctorow’s sweeping historical novel, swings for the narrative fences. The saga of three sets of characters at the turn of what would come to be known as “the American century,” the show freely mixes the fictional with the factual in a theatrical montage that conscripts such famous figures as Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and J.P. Morgan to occasionally assist in pushing along the fabricated plot.
Dramatic subtlety can’t help getting lost in the swirl. But when “Ragtime” works, it’s glorious. The show contains some of the most breathtaking musical theater writing of the last 25 years. The book by Terrence McNally and the score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens received Tony Awards, and had “The Lion King” not been in contention that year it likely would have won for best musical as well.
The 1998 Broadway premiere was a starry affair, with a cast that included Marin Mazzie, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald and even a young Lea Michele in the role of the Little Girl. But the stars haven’t always aligned for the show, which was produced by scandal-rocked Livent Inc., whose co-founder Garth Drabinsky eventually served prison time in Canada for fraud.
There is a lingering sense among some Broadway buffs that “Ragtime,” which received mixed reviews and didn’t last long enough to become a megahit, was cheated of some of its due. A second Broadway production in 2009 flopped, darkening prospects of redemption for a musical of daunting scope and undeniable skill. But there’s good news to report from Pasadena Playhouse, where a stunning revival opened Sunday under the expert direction of David Lee.
The musical still has its embarrassing storytelling moments, and when the waves of honky-tonk piano give way to saccharine power ballads, the score loses its rich historical flavor. But trust me, musical theater lovers: The show, pulled off with polish and panache, is one you won’t want to miss.
A hugely ambitious undertaking for Pasadena Playhouse, the production I feared might overwhelm the company. But it’s a mistake to underestimate Lee, who has a track record of making even tricky musicals like “Can-Can” kick right past their problem spots. A television writer, producer and director who has collected nine Emmy Awards through his work on “Cheers” and “Frasier,” he has a knack for getting the best out of an ensemble cast, as he demonstrated in his superb 2016 production of Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina” at the Playhouse.
The sprawling musical is tightly contained on a crate-filled set evoking the frenetic energy of immigrants entering the rags-to-riches rat race. Tom Buderwitz’s scenic design, given majestic contours through Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting, focuses our attention on the human figures at the fore.
The performers are never lost in the pageantry. The music winds through the characters, revealing what is at stake for them and the nation. Mark Esposito’s choreography and Darryl Archibald’s music direction and conducting help to smoothly guide the melodious flow.
Mother (Shannon Warne), Father (Zachary Ford) and Little Boy (Luké Barbato Smith) are nestled in their prosperous white enclave of New Rochelle, but they won’t be protected for long from the convulsive changes underway in America. Tateh (Marc Ginsburg), a Jewish widower, has arrived in New York, hoping to provide a better life for his Little Girl (Iara Nemirovsky) than was possible in their shtetl in the old country. Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Clifton Duncan), an African American piano man whose musical gifts have made him the proud owner of a Model T, infuses Harlem with the syncopated sound of ragtime while pining for Sarah (Bryce Charles), who, pregnant with his child, left town after he did her wrong.
These three groups of characters, representing different swaths of the American experience, will collide as capitalism gains momentum, cultures cross-pollinate and underdogs start to demand their fair share. It’s a timely moment to hear their collective story. At a time when politics is stymied by the demand for a border wall, “Ragtime” sings a “salute to the immigrant stranger” while taking in the hardships of those courageous souls who seek to realize America’s democratic promise.
The plot, for all its contemporary resonance, requires some leniency. There’s no shortage of incident, some of it far-fetched. But mostly there’s just much too much.
It’s entirely possible that a baby abandoned by its mother would be taken in by its rescuer, but the way Mother discovers Sarah’s baby while digging around in the garden strains credulity. And yes, habitual injustice has been known to radicalize a person, but Coalhouse’s path to terrorism is paved less by social psychology than thematic fiat.
The performers are strong across the board, so this is no criticism of their work. In fact, Warne’s Mother and Duncan’s Coalhouse are such affecting presences that they make even the more doubtful narrative contrivances possible to overlook.
Even Younger Brother, Mother’s sibling who has become a master at explosives at Father’s fireworks factory, seems convincing in Dylan Saunders’ strikingly idiosyncratic portrayal. This is quite a feat when you consider that the character, long obsessed with salacious vaudeville beauty Evelyn Nesbit (Katharine McDonough), undergoes a conversion after hearing anarchist Emma Goldman (Valerie Perri) at a Union Square rally that transforms him into a revolutionary.
Lee’s casting is so astute that whole characterizations are conveyed through the intensity of a stare or the turn of a head. Mother’s recoiling at Father’s moralizing coldness tells the story of their marriage, a battle between her social conscience and his capitalist control. The restraint of Warne and Ford speaks volumes about the disappointments and regrets that humanize their characters.
When Mother greets Tateh with the words “Good day, sir,” the gratitude of an impoverished stranger met with respect instead of derision radiates with meaning far beyond this passing encounter. Later, when the two become better acquainted after Tateh’s fortunes change, the effect of this simple courtesy can still be felt in Ginsburg’s ardent gaze.
The music deepens and expands the work of the actors, joining their characters to our national story and communicating what words fumble to express. When Charles’ Sarah and Duncan’s Coalhouse sing “Wheels of a Dream,” private wishes, fueled by love, take an optimistic (and sadly all too precarious) leap into public declaration.
Sarah has already revealed her true feelings for Coalhouse in her touching song to her baby, “Your Daddy’s Son.” Tender melancholy is one of the specialties of Flaherty and Ahrens, who are just as adept at rolling jazz. The opening number sets the thrilling piano rhythms of a nation stepping lively into the first decade of what will be a momentous century.
Darkness and violence are an inescapable part of the story. Treachery leads to tragedy, but hope somehow perseveres. “Ragtime” is as messy as our history. With its gorgeous singing, Lee’s production draws out the show’s musical beauty. A couple of anthems ring hollow in their insistent 1990s Broadway way, but America’s undersong stirringly comes through.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Ragtime: The Musical’
Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through March 9
Tickets: Start at $25
Information: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org