Epic. That’s how the $10 million musical “Ragtime” was promoted and critiqued when it arrived on Broadway in 1998.
It was epic in size with its 50-person cast, sumptuous sets and extravagant costuming. And it was epic in scope with its telling of the state of the American Dream at the dawn of the 20th century.
While the tale remains the same in this Cain Park production, everything has been pared down to a bare elliptical stage, an intimate in-the-round staging, a 26-member cast and a 10-piece band led by Jordan Cooper’s wand and keyboard. And it works beautifully.
Based on the acclaimed 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Terrence McNally’s “Ragtime” offers a multi-strand story of three groups of Americans in and around New York City in 1906. Collectively, they signify the sweeping social, political and economic changes occurring at the turn of the century that made the America we live in today.
The white suburbanites are represented by Mother (Birdie Carroll), the forward-thinking matriarch of an upper-class Victorian family in New Rochelle that includes Father (Daniel J. Simpson), Little Boy (Jake Spencer), Grandfather (Michael J. Rogan) and Mother’s Younger Brother (Will Price). The African Americans are represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Eugene Sumlin), a Harlem jazz pianist who turns a personal injustice into a revolution. And the immigrants are represented by Tateh (Scott Esposito), a Jew from Latvia who sells his silhouette portraits on the streets to survive the squalor of the Lower East Side alongside his young daughter (Elise Pakiela).
Their personal journeys, which intertwine in the course of the play, are interspersed with the stories of historic figures to offer diversion and historical context. They include escape artist Harry Houdini (Sam Nasar), auto tycoon Henry Ford (Tony Heffner), educator Booker T. Washington (Anthony Savage-Williams) and infamous entertainer Evelyn Nesbit (Anna Barrett).
By shedding the show’s grandeur and ostentation, and relying heavily on Trad A Burns and Ben Gantose’s dramatic lighting design and the abundance of talent on stage, this bare-boned production exposes the work’s core emotionalism. This is most apparent in the performance of “Our Children,” beautifully sung by Tateh and Mother, and in the gorgeous duet called “Sarah Brown Eyes” between Coalhouse and the mother (Mariah Burks) of their illegitimate child. And thanks to the many strong voices in the small ensemble (specifically Nyla Watson, Kate Leigh Michalski and Nate Summers), none of the volume required in powerful anthems like “Till We Reach That Day” is compromised.
Director Joanna May Cullinan does a marvelous job keeping her actors playing to all of the surrounding audience, making sure they find the humanity and era-specific class distinctions that drive their characters – Tesia Dugan Benson’s period-perfect costuming helps in this regard – and perform Imani Jackson’s terrific, time-sensitive choreography to perfection.
Despite its small size, this wonderful rendition of “Ragtime” stirs the soul and manages to soar.