Before “Hamilton,” there was “Ragtime.” If the former speaks of immigrants getting things done in America, the latter equally praises would-be citizens – most notably Latvian Jewish budding artist Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl.
The budding artist turned successful silent filmmaker who becomes Hollywood director Baron Ashkenazy tells his daughter “A Shtetl Iz Amereke” – America is a shtetl – in this case a country with great possibilities. The gifted late author of “Ragtime,” E.L. Doctorow, saw the early 20th century as a time of great change – much of it arising from encounters between immigrants eager to share the American Dream, African-Americans struggling for full freedom and equality, and Anglo-Saxon Protestants largely resistant to both groups.
Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University is the latest local company to stage the inspired Broadway musical –which had runs in 1998 and 2009 – that captures both conflict and connection, here in an inventive production that celebrates the novel as much as the show’s strong Terrence McNally book and lush Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens score.
The Wheelock staging’s inventiveness begins before a word is spoken. Audience members will find a diversity of children on a stage library. Little Boy, the son of the New Rochelle, N.Y.-based Protestants, is reading a book that turns out to be Doctorow’s benchmark novel. As company artistic director Emily Ranii observes in the playbill, this production emphasizes African-American piano player Coalhouse Walker Jr.’s motto-like advice to adults to “Teach every child to raise his voice.” Not surprisingly, Little Boy appears at the back or side of many scenes as a witness to the march of change and its impact on America in the early 1900s.
Lindsay Genevieve Fuori’s handsome library-dominated scenic design – complete with high-rising shelving and ladders – smartly serves the musical’s book and score. For example, during the stirring early number ‘’Journey On,” director Nick Vargas has Protestant Father and Tateh crossing paths on high-wheeled library set pieces that serve as ships as the former sets out to explore and the latter approaches America. Shelving sometimes suggests Coalhouse’s piano as well.
A high-energy cast does its impassioned best to capture this singular musical’s sweeping evocation of a changing America as embodied in Doctorow’s insightful novel and the new music evoked in the title. Tony Castellanos has all of Tateh’s protective love for Little Girl – whom he drapes in his talit – and his newfound confidence soars as he moves from making silhouettes and movie books to actual films.
Lisa Yuen finds Mother’s inner nobility and her self-empowerment, especially on the lyrical solo “Back to Before.” Anthony Pires Jr. catches all of Coalhouse’s infectious optimism with Sarah on the show-stopping number “The Wheels of a Dream,” as well as his fiery concern on “Make Them Hear You.”
Pier Lamia Porter is properly affecting and vulnerable as Sarah, most notably sweetly delivering the touching solo “Your Daddy’s Son.” With his big voice, Peter Adams gives the best portrayal of largely clueless Father that this critic has ever seen. Other standouts include Jonathan Acorn’s earnest Younger Brother, Ben Choi-Harris’s always direct Little Boy, and Nicole Paloma Sarro’s feisty socialist activist Emma Goldman. Music director Jon Goldberg does full justice to the eclectic score.
“Ragtime” resonates more than ever at a time when Jews, African-Americans, and immigrants are confronting both new and familiar opposition and challenges. Wheelock Family Theatre’s wonderfully fresh revival brings timely immediacy to its haunting message of hope and understanding in the face of hate.
The Wheelock Family Theatre is located at 180 The Riverway on the Fenway Campus of Boston University. For tickets, call 617-353-3001 or visit wheelockfamilytheatre.org.