Set in Gilded Age and early 20th-century New York, and based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, the musical Ragtime bursts with contemporary themes: the challenges of integrating waves of immigrants, the struggle by blacks for equal rights, the attempt by women to find their own voice, even the lure of celebrity.
From its panoramic opening number to its stirring finale, Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's visually lush production, directed by Dennis Razze, does the show thrilling justice.
Named for a musical style associated with both Harlem and modernity, Ragtime has a Tony Award-winning book (by Terrence McNally) and score (lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty). The same songwriting team created the even more seductive Once on This Island, a Tony winner this month for Best Revival of a Musical.
Daringly, but sometimes to its detriment, Ragtime is a show driven more by ideas than character or plot. With songs such as "Success," "Wheels of a Dream," "Back to Before" and "Till We Reach that Day," it both celebrates and interrogates our civil religion of progress and economic opportunity. An undertow of tragedy suggests that for African Americans, in particular, progress has been far too slow.
The musical, like the novel, is a tapestry, telling the intersecting stories of an elite white suburban family, the proud black musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., and an Eastern European Jewish immigrant, Tateh, who leaps from silhouette artist to film director. Punctuating the action are cameos by celebrities such as Harry Houdini (an immigrant who literally breaks his chains), Evelyn Nesbit (whose husband, Harry K. Thaw, shot her lover, the architect Stanford White), Booker T. Washington (an exponent of black assimilation), the industrialist Henry Ford, and the anarchist Emma Goldman.
Despite a melodic, eclectic score, the almost three-hour-long show, with its episodic storytelling and flashbacks, sags in spots. The upper-crust white characters, with names such as "Mother," "Father" and "Younger Brother," can seem deliberately cartoonish. The final romantic pairing, along with the multicultural family it produces, registers mostly as a fantasy.
This production benefits from Broadway-caliber talent. Brandi Burkhardt as Mother and Nkrumah Gatling as Coalhouse Walker Jr. – the two characters with significant emotional arcs – anchor the show, as they should. Destinee Rea, as Sarah, Walker's love interest, does a beautiful rendition of "Your Daddy's Son," the song that helped make Audra McDonald a star. Samuel Druhora is an imposing Tateh. As Emma Goldman, Michele Ragusa (Evelyn Nesbit in the original Broadway production) makes us want to enlist in whatever movement she's leading.
Above all, the staging is gorgeous, from the sumptuous lighting (by Eric T. Haugen, who also designed past PSF musicals) to the costumes (Courtney Irizarry) and set (Steve Teneyck's evocation of the steel arches and girders of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition). Stephen Casey's choreography gives each group — the white elite, immigrants, African Americans – a distinct style of movement.
It's worth noting that PSF, in the heart of politically divided Lehigh County, is making some canny, non-escapist choices in its musical-theater programming. Two years ago, West Side Story tackled both immigration concerns and the tragic fallout of racial prejudice; last summer's Evita spoke to the pitfalls of charismatic, authoritarian leadership, and Ragtime registers as a blazingly relevant paean to both the awakening of oppressed women and the Black Lives Matter movement. I can't wait to see what Razze and PSF do next.
Ragtime. Presented through July 1 by the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival on the Main Stage at the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts at DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley, Pa. Tickets: $25-$75. Information: www.pashakespeare.org or 610-282-9455.