“Ragtime,” the feverish portrait of America in the early shape-changing decades of the 20th century, may very well be the most underrated of all American musicals. Adapted from the landmark 1975 novel by E.L Doctorow — with an altogether ravishing and impassioned score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and a book by Terrence McNally — it captures so many aspects of this country’s history and character, and so much of our multi-faceted musical fabric, and laces them together with such beauty and brilliance, that along the way you have to catch your breath.
When: Through July 16
Where: Griffin Theatre atThe Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee
Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission
As heretical as this might sound, I’d easily put “Ragtime,” with its convulsive, nation-forging themes and volcanic rhythmic shifts, right alongside (or even ahead of) “Hamilton,” on any list of finest theatrical portraits of this country. And should you need definitive evidence of why, just head to the Griffin Theatre production that opened Sunday, in which director Scott Weinstein (among the most gifted musical theater directors now at work here) has staged what may well be the finest version of the show ever mounted — the original 1998 Broadway production included. Hyperbole? Not at all.
Set between 1906 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914, “Ragtime” captures several seismic shifts transforming the United States at the time: The massive migration of Eastern Europeans to our shores, the start of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north, the implementation of the assembly line, the push for women’s suffrage.
It all begins in New Rochelle, the prosperous, relatively tranquil white town north of New York City, where Father (Scott Allen Luke) and Mother (graceful, golden-voiced Laura McClain), live with their young son (Ben Miller), Mother’s restless Younger Brother (Matt Edmonds), and Grandfather (Larry Baldacci), with African-American domestic help commuting to work. The family’s fortune comes from the manufacture of fireworks and other “patriotic” items, and it allows Father to head out on expeditions to the North Pole and elsewhere while Mother helms the home front.
Everyone’s life is radically changed when Father is away, and Mother, in a life-altering decision, chooses to take in the African-American newborn abandoned in her garden, as well as the child’s mother, Sarah (Katherine Thomas, whose beautifully expressive face and honeyed voice mix for natural star power). Sarah’s lover is the alluring ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Denzel Tsopnang, an easily charismatic actor-singer-dancer whose elegant bearing speaks volumes). Coalhouse left her before knowing he was to be a father, comes to win her back, and then loses her in an act of violence that goes a long way toward undoing him.
Meanwhile, just as Father heads off to the North Pole, a ship full of immigrants sails into New York Harbor, and among these “homeless, tempest-tost” masses are Tateh, the widowed, Latvian-Jewish paper artist (Jason Richards, in a uniquely galvanic, tragicomic turn that lights up the stage as he goes from penniless laborer to innovative moviemaker), and his daughter, The Little Girl (Autumn Hlava).
Meanwhile, socialist activist Emma Goldman (a searing turn by Neala Barron) is rallying the oppressed masses in her own fiery fashion. Booker T. Washington (fine work by Frederick Harris), the educator and orator born into slavery, who led Tuskegee Institute and was a fervent supporter of education and entrepreneurship as the key to self-improvement, rails against violence as an agent for change. And providing various forms of popular entertainment are Evelyn Nesbit (the drolly engaging Caitlin Collins), the scandal-generating vaudeville beauty dubbed the “Girl on a Swing,” and master illusionist Harry Houdini (Joe Capstick).
Together they embark on an epic journey in the quest for justice, respect, acceptance, success and love, with one stunning radical act of terrorism drawing the story to a tragic climax. And from the altogether breathtaking opening number that echoes the musical’s title, the show moves through three dozen ravishing, exquisitely rendered songs that capture the “new” sound of ragtime, along with other popular music of the period, hymns, and Broadway ballads and anthems, all played in Matt Deitchman’s newly-orchestrated score performed by a trio of superb onstage musicians. From time to time the multi-talented cast of 20 (which also includes Marcellus Burt, Danielle Davis, Courtney Jones, Arielle Leverett, Alanna Lovely, Juwon Tyrel Perry, Jonathan Schwart, and Blace McGraw, a tiny five-year-old who will steal your heart in a single instant), also picks up everything from a violin and banjo to a flute and drum.
Weinstein, in collaboration with the sensational choreographer William Carlos Angulo, finds countless ways to animate designer William Boles’ ingenious set, with its curving central platform, smoky arched window and multiple ramps, all expertly lit by Alex Ridgers and embellished by Rachel Sypniewski’s Broadway quality costumes.
Throughout this production, there is a powerful (but authentic) echo of the current call to “make America great again.” It rings out in ways that suggest our time is still struggling to catch up with “Ragtime.”