E.L. Doctrorow’s 1975 classic novel Ragtime is the basis for the musical Ragtime currently playing at the Spreckels Theatre downtown through this weekend. It is another outstanding production brought to you by San Diego Musical Theatre. Coming in late on the review side I feel compelled to urge you to see this, one of my favorite musicals, before the run ends.
With book by Terrence McNally and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty the epic musical covers a period in American history from the turn of the century through the outbreak of WWII. Historical characters as Henry Ford (Paul Morgavo), Harry Houdini (Michael Mittman), Emma Goldman (Abby Gershuny) Booker T. Washington (Vimel Sephus), Stanford White (Steven Freitas), J.P. Morgan (Ryan Dietrich) and Evelyn Nesbit as the girl on the swing are minor characters woven into the story as it traces three distinct ethnic groups through the turbulent 1900’s.
From the comfort of the upstate elite New Rochelle upper crust to the slums of Lower East Side of Manhattan to the shores of Ellis Island, the beaches of Atlantic City and the music of Harlem, Ragtime presents a socio/political statement bringing together the cultures that made this country what it is today: the good, the bad the ugly and the beautiful but always a safe-haven for freedom seekers.
Not always ‘the good old days’, it highlights the unions organizing for fair wages and safe working conditions, African Americans seeking a place for themselves through music and culture, or for the Jewish Immigrant thankful for a place of refuge from oppression and poverty as the white upper class continues to dominate.
It is in this setting that the central character Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Jay Donnell is absolutely stunning with powerful chops) sets out to prove that his ragtime music and his excellent piano playing will put him in the limelight to further his dreams. In another century it would. His rise to fame and fall from grace is a roller coaster ride. From his meting his true love Sarah (an excellent Nicole Pryor) and finding their young son Coalhouse JR. (an adorable Taj Brandon), Coalhouse runs into a brick wall soon enough as bigotry, ignorance and intolerance take him on another path that ends up tragically.
As his plight continues the story branches out to the Jewish immigrant Tata (Louis Pardo) who becomes a movie mogul from cutting out silhouettes to make a living for himself and his little daughter. It takes us to the upper crust gentility from New Rochelle whose family bisects and merges with the other two in ways antithetical to what might have been in those days. The family is on solid ground with Father (Chris O’Bryon), Mother (a charming and first-rate Carolyn Agan), Grandfather (Ralph Johnson in a role made for him), Mother’s brother (a strong and nuanced Bryan Banville) and The Little Boy (Elliot Weaver does a great job narrating parts of the story).
Director-choreographer Paul David Bryant, and his splendid cast of over 40, has a proven track record with Ragtime having directed this same show at Moonlight years ago to critical success. SDMT’s Don Le Master and his full orchestra conducts his usual magic making Stephen Flaherty’s music and Ahrens lyrics hummable for some time to come. (“Our Children”, “He Wanted to Say”, “Wheels of a Dream”, “Make Them Hear You” “Crime of the Century”)
With not a weak character in its cast the management of San Diego Musical Theatre has taken on a huge responsibility with this production, one worthy of seeing before it closes and 42nd Street opens.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Feb.21st
Organization: San Diego Musical Theatre
Production Type: Musical
Where: 121 Broadway, Downtown
Ticket Prices: $40.00-$70.00
Venue: Spreckels Theatre Downtown