"Ragtime: The Musical" is a story that still needs to be told. Adapted from E.L. Doctorow's novel, this epic musical finds in the experience of three families, circa 1906, all the glories and contradictions that created the American Century. The hopes of immigrants, the legacy of bigotry and the rise of a working class are given voice in the syncopated music that reflected the nation's changing face.
Gary Gisselman's grand production, which opened Friday at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, unequivocally aims for our hearts with these stories. Yet it would diminish the value of both the musical and Gisselman's treatment here to label the work merely sentimental. "Ragtime" takes a brisk and unflinching assessment of a society caught in the jaws of change, and creates central characters defined by bravery, pain, decency and a bedrock dedication to life. The portrayals are necessarily thin because "Ragtime" is more or less a narrated pageant; but writer Terrence McNally and lyricist Lynn Ahrens mine enough of Doctorow's plot to provide texture.
Christina Baldwin radiates compassion as Mother, the matriarch of a New Rochelle family. She finds an African-American baby hidden in her garden and then harbors the child's mother (Brittany Bradford). Once Father (Lee Mark Nelson), a rich industrialist, returns from an adventure to the North Pole, he finds his world turned upside down. "When did they change the song?" he wonders in Stephen Flaherty's music.
The child's father is Coalhouse Walker Jr., a ragtime pianist played by Harry Waters Jr. The third family drama involves Tateh (played opening night by Dan Beckman but thereafter by Dieter Bierbrauer). A Latvian immigrant, he suffers in the tenements and the sweatshops before finding his calling.
McNally's script uses enough real history that we are forced to take the story seriously. Emma Goldman (Kersten Rodau) delivers fiery pleas for justice; Booker T. Washington (Shawn Hamilton) exhorts black Americans to live upright lives. Harry Houdini (Sasha Andreev) and Evelyn Nesbit (Caroline Innerbichler) represent popular culture.
Gisselman is greatly aided by music director Denise Prosek, who finds the right instruments and moods to caress the songs. Rick Polenek designed a spacious and open playing space ringed by balconies and walkways. And choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell moves the large cast around Park Square's smallish stage with great economy.
This production feels absolutely essential by showing us American history through the lens of family.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299