AUGUST 10, 2017 – OGUNQUIT – A Latvian Jewish immigrant fears losing his daughter. African-Americans struggle for full respect as citizen descendants of slaves. These key scenarios of the 1975 E.L. Doctorow historical novel “Ragtime” and the 1998 Broadway musical of the same name may speak to a climate of xenophobia and prejudice in early 1900’s America. Yet they resonate just as powerfully as a 2017 White House seeks to limit legal immigration and plans to bring suit against colleges employing affirmative action considerations in making admissions decisions. As Ogunquit Playhouse director Seth Sklar-Heyn reminds audiences in his playbill notes, Doctorow once observed that “History is the present. That’s why each generation writes it anew.” Now this brilliantly syncopated “Ragtime’’ is playing out the vibrant song of that history in a revival for the ages.
Set largely in New York City and Atlantic City and bringing together fictional characters and such diverse real people as Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt, Emma Goldman, J.P. Morgan and Booker T. Washington, “Ragtime” captures the promise and the pain of pre-World War I America. Upper class suburbanites, East European immigrants and aspiring black Americans enter and march opposite and around each other in a tellingly high-conflict opening sharply blocked by Sklar-Heyn.
The stark contrast of the three groups is enhanced by costume coordinator Molly Walz’s vivid outfits (based on Santo Loquasto’s Broadway originals) – ranging from New Rochelle’s conservatively elegant attire to the poor immigrants’ black and white simple attire and the African-Americans’ snappy and colorful suits and dresses.
With a clear book by Terrence McNally and an emotionally rich score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), this four-Tony Award-winning musical (including very deserved honors for book and score), Ragtime’s compelling narrative will transform an initially complacent white family, turn tallit-donning and Yiddish fluent Jewish silhouette book creator Tateh into a successful and assimilated but still proudly Jewish silent film director and propel gifted Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker into a figure moved to radical action and revenge by deadly hatred and injustice.
Under Sklar-Heyn’s pains-taking guidance, all three stories and their eventual over-lapping are woven together as masterfully as the tapestry adorning the J.P. Morgan Library in Tim Mackabee’s well-detailed scenic design. Jesse Robb’s properly varied choreography smartly captures the high-stepping moves of Coalhouse’s entourage in a rollicking number like “Getting’ Ready Rag” as well as the escapist ensemble couples of “Atlantic City, Part II.” Richard Latta’s lighting evokes the poetic blossoming of opportunity during “Ragtime”’s tumultuous changes, while Kevin Heard’s sound design catches the promise of the Model T and the perils of racism and ethnic clash.
Best of all, Ogunquit’s Broadway caliber “Ragtime” features both the best ensemble and individual musical performances thus far in 2017. Darnell Abraham has all of Coalhouse’s charisma, charm and tenderness with Sarah and his son as well as his fire and outrage in the face of punishing prejudice. Big-voiced Abraham and songbird Lindsay Roberts – rightly vulnerable but determined as Sarah – deliver the show’s anthem-like best number “Wheels of a Dream” with heart-stirring hopefulness. Josh Young captures Tateh’s tenacity as artist and undaunted immigrant and deep caring for his daughter, particularly as he covers her with his tallit to keep her warm and richly sings this iconic immigrant’s future-embracing solo “Gliding.”
Kirsten Scott finds New Rochelle Mother’s warmth and wisdom as she stands up to her chauvinistic husband Father – played with proper cluelessness by Jamie LaVerdiere – and attempts to protect Sarah and her son. Sol Thomas (who alternates with Tyler Wladis) catches their son The Little Boy’s truth-telling directness and a baseball during the then tellingly white “What a Game!” Julian Decker has all of Mother’s Younger Brother’s explosive singlemindedness, and Klea Blackhurst Jewish activist Emma Goldman’s indomitable spirit.
Darnell Abraham brings singular intensity to Coalhouse’s anthem-like call for justice in ‘’Make Them Hear You.” Likewise Ogunquit’s fired-up ‘’Ragtime’’ has must-see fire.
“Ragtime,” Ogunquit Playhouse, Ogunquit, Maine, through August 26. ogunquitplayhouse.org.