Artfully staged and passionately sung, American Stage in the Park’s production of Ragtime makes a good case for the lasting importance of the 1998 Tony-winning musical, an enthralling critique of what it means to dream the American dream.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s innovative 1975 novel, the musical (with book by Terrence McNally and score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynne Ahrens) tells the stories of three fictional families in New York at the turn of the 20th century. They’re led by Coalhouse Walker, a Harlem ragtime pianist; Father, a wealthy fireworks manufacturer in New Rochelle; and Tateh, a Latvian immigrant who dreams of building a better life for his daughter. The lives of all three families intersect with famous historical figures of the time, including Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, and the infamous beauty at the center of a high-society sex-and-murder scandal, Evelyn Nesbit.
It’s an epic undertaking, with a 23-member cast. But director Erica Sutherlin’s command of the material is apparent right from the opening number. On a set brilliantly conceived as a fragmented Statue of Liberty (enhanced by Dalton Hamilton’s lighting design), the social classes are delineated by authentic period costumes and by Heather Beal’s inventive choreography as they move to the “new syncopation” of ragtime music. Later, the versatile ensemble morphs seamlessly into striking laborers, raucous baseball fans, and, most impressively, as an assembly line for the Model T.
The car itself was a democratic invention, making automobiles more available to everyone, including Coalhouse Walker. But the workers who manufacture the Model T are reduced to cogs in the machine. And, white bigots, seeing a Black man in a shiny new car, try to put him in his place by destroying it. Coalhouse, so confident that the American dream was in his sights, begins a crusade for justice.
Sutherlin and Musical Director Latoya McCormick have assembled a strong cast. Dante Murray, a towering baritone, is Coalhouse. Billy Goldstein finds all the colors in the tender, resourceful Tateh. As Mother, who takes in Sarah and her child while Father is on an Arctic exhibition, Sarah Middough, with her clarion soprano, captures the yearnings of a woman who longs to go on her own journeys, while Larry Alexander’s Father is both enraging and endearing. Martin Powers gives a limber performance as their young son, Edgar, and Matthew Harper Stevenson is convincingly ardent as Mother’s Younger Brother, who’s obsessed with Evelyn Nesbit. Doing double duty as Henry Ford and a racist fire chief, Cody Taylor is eminently hissable.
Beth Gelman is terrific as the rabble-rousing Emma Goldman, though technical glitches meant she had to use a hand-held mic at one point. Anthony Gervais’s Harry Houdini, though effective, also had some audibility issues. As is often the case with Park shows, there were times when the sound quality was harsh and the orchestra overwhelmed the dialogue and singers. And by the time we’re nearing the end of the two-hour, 45-minute run time and hearing yet another full-on, entire-cast anthem, you may be thinking, “OK, enough already, I get the point.”
But that point — that we have a long way to go before the American dream is a reality for all — is indelibly made.