Full disclosure: I’m a Ragtime newbie. I never read the book, saw the movie, or, until now, experienced the musical on Broadway or anywhere else. Dimly familiar with the story – an early-20th-century mingled tale of a wealthy white Westchester family, a Harlem musician turned revolutionary, and an ambitious Jewish immigrant – I wondered how it all fit together in a musical theater context. The answer, on the evidence of the fine new production from the Gallery Players, is: brilliantly. Terrence McNally’s book, a small masterpiece of concision and focus, stitches Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s superb songs into what David Dinkins might have called a “gorgeous mosaic” of the story of America.
Marcus Jordan is full of charismatic fire as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the ragtime pianist pining for his lover Sarah, who has abandoned him. As Sarah, a role for which Audra McDonald won a 1998 Tony Award, Renee Steadman reveals a gorgeous voice and a powerful presence both soft and steely. Her rendition of the aria “Your Daddy’s Son” is heart-wrenching.
Another standout voice is that of Alex Bird as Younger Brother, the searcher who becomes so sensitized to racial injustice that he radicalizes. Heather Koren is magnetic as his good-hearted older sister, called Mother, who, after taking in Coalhouse and Sarah’s baby, overcomes subservience to her husband with true early-feminist chutzpah. James Zannelli as Tateh, the Jewish immigrant and single father, is so big-hearted and touching I couldn’t help imagining him as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Elyse Beyer delightfully vamps up Evelyn Nesbit, one of the famous real people whose stories intersect with the fictional characters’, Doug Chitel shines in his brief appearances as Harry Houdini, and Annie Sherman makes a spitfire of anarchist Emma Goldman.
This is a fine ensemble cast, and mentioning everyone would be tiresome. Yet I can’t resist giving kudos to child actors Gareth Hogan and Emma Berardelli. Both substitutes for the listed players, they showed mature skill and devastating charm on Friday night. Not every cast member boasts Broadway-quality singing chops, but the overall talent level is most impressive. Director Mark Harborth marshals the large cast skillfully to render the show’s panoramic portrait of the human spirit with piercing energy, convincing period atmosphere, and clever staging, buoyed by witty choreography from Ryan Hendricks that juices up the numerous production numbers. It’s also nice to see a full-fledged production of a big musical performed without microphones. These actors show that they are still trained to project; seldom does a line get lost.
Life, said Houdini, is “all mystery and magic.” This Ragtime says the same about theater – and theater is life turned into magic, after all. Complete with a Model T, Ragtime closes out the Gallery Players’ 50th anniversary season in style. It runs through May 14 at the Gallery Players theater at 199 14th St., Park Slope, Brooklyn. Visit the website for schedule and tickets, and for details on the company’s May 9 gala celebration of its half-century, at the Picnic House in Prospect Park.