Ragtime, The Musical at Park Square Theatre

Brittany Bradford and Harry Waters, Jr., in Ragtime, The Musical.

E. L. Doctorow was the author of two respected but not widely read novels when in 1975 he thundered onto the literary scene with Ragtime.  Set 1902-17, the novel blends history and fantasy, private characters with oversized historical figures (J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, et al), all rendered in sharp but refined prose.  Out of the historical swirl, slowly but effectively, stories emerge: of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (a brilliant character), his touching love for Sarah and his outrage at the defiling of his precious Model T.  Of immigrant Tateh and the beginnings of the film industry.  Ragtime made Doctorow, deservedly, a literary star.

There’s no way the creators of Ragtime, The Musical (at Park Square Theatre, through Feb 19) can reproduce the narrative elegance of Doctorow’s masterpiece.  Instead, Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) opt for size.  In numbers like “Ragtime” (the breath-taking opening, in which the waspish New Rochellians, the African Americans, and the immigrants come together, then break apart, repeatedly), “Henry Ford” (about assembly lines), “What A Game” (baseball), one can vividly feel the Broadway provenance of this show.  There are some lovely private songs as well: Mother’s lovely, “Good-Bye, My Love”, Walker’s eloquent “Wheels Of A Dream” and, especially, Sarah’s astonishing “Your Daddy’s Son.”

It all works – mostly.  Flaherty and Ahrens have created some terrific tuneage.  Ragtime contains inspired theatricality, as when Father returns from his polar explorations to find Walker playing ragtime piano for his beloved, Sarah, and her baby upstairs – and no one finds the situation surprising.  Walker’s fury is intelligently handled.  The trap, which the show-makers don’t fall into, would be to make him a one-note (and boring) victim.

Still, once this vital plot thread begins, big tunes like “Atlantic City” feel off-the-mark.  Also, book-writer McNally (of necessity, as he attempts to replicate the sweep of the book) too often falls back on stodgy narration and simplistic characterizations that go nowhere.

But any misgivings about the material are mooted by the loveliness of the production.  Great praise is due director Gary Gisselman who, working with a limited budget, has assembled a boffo cast, first rate musicians, excellent designers and a terrific choreographer.  He stages the show with aplomb.

Ragtime is a big play; ergo, I lack space to adequately praise all the artists who have made it work.  Still, I must applaud music director/pianist Denise Prosek.  I was constantly (and pleasantly) aware of her guiding presence behind the scrim.  As Mother and Father, Christina Baldwin and Lee Mark Nelson, with solid technical prowess, anchor the proceedings.  I was delighted every time they appeared.  Harry Waters excels as Walker.  As Sarah, Brittany Bradford gives a nuanced and powerful performance.  This young woman has some chops – and she sings beautifully.  Dieter Bierbauer is a marvel as Tateh; ditto Aleks Knezevich as Younger Brother.  I have to stop.

Ragtime, The Musical is as big a show as has ever been seen at Park Square.  It’s long (3-ish hours), but the seats are butt-friendly and the ticket prices are approachable.  Definitely recommended.

For more information about John Olive please visit his website.

How Was the Show for You?

Your email address will not be published.