It's a fine time for Bristol Riverside Theatre's production of Ragtime, the Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty/Terrence McNally musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's sprawling 1975 novel (which was followed by Milos Forman's 1981 film). The show premiered in 1996, and saw a Broadway revival in 2009. It takes place in the years between the turn of the 20th century and World War I.
Why so many dates? Just to stress that though it is a turn-of-the-20th-century American story, it remains just as relevant at the turn of the 21st.
Immigrants arrive with strange accents, ratty clothes, and a coin or two in their pockets, hoping to realize their American dreams (here, they're a Jewish father and daughter coming from Eastern Europe on a "rag ship"). The descendants of former immigrants (a WASP family from New Rochelle) bemoan declining standards of civility and learn to accept their changing position in the U.S. cultural hierarchy.
Police brutality plagues the African American community. Musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Derrick Cobey) is driven to terroristic acts after a group of volunteer-firefighter thugs destroy his brand new Model T, and his beloved, Sarah (Ciji Prosser), is accidentally killed by the police.
As choreographed by Stephen Casey during the show's soaring opening number, the three groups circle one another warily. By the end, their paths will all intersect. Meanwhile, celebrities get into scandals. The rich get richer. Workers struggle and fight back. Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, and others all pop in and out to comment on the proceedings.
With more than 30 cast members and an 11-piece orchestra, this is a major undertaking for the company. Jason Simms' stripped-down set, a pair of movable stairs and platforms adorned with curving brass rails, provides much-needed room and a dash of period style.
However, Keith Baker's direction seems overly ambitious, cluttered, and slightly under-rehearsed, with a wide range of ability represented onstage. Casey's choreography also suffers from disorganized moves not always performed in unison.
The good news is Cobey's Coalhouse and Prosser's Sarah: Both can sing out and stir hearts. Cobey originated the role of Andy Wright in The Scottsboro Boys, which comes in handy here. In many ways, Ragtime plays like an easier, lighter variation on Scottsboro. But Cobey brings much-needed intensity to the production, and helps make it matter, both for the audience and for Bristol.
Through April 22 at Bristol Riverside Theater, 123 Radcliffe St., Bristol.
Information: 215-785-0100 or brtstage.org.