Confronting Social Injustice in Big, Eloquent ‘Ragtime’

With a glorious cast of 41 on stage, and 21 musicians in the pit, there is much to love about San Diego Musical Theatre’s big and eloquent Ragtime on view at the Spreckels Theatre.

Performances are ferocious in this potent musical. The score and direction are marvelous too.

Still, it is difficult to sit through a dramatic narrative about prejudice and immigration, inequality and domestic terrorism.

Did I mention gun violence? Those expecting a bouncy piano concert are in for a shock and reality check.

Director-choreographer Paul David Bryant creates a visual feast with historical details, such as a shiny Model T and period costumes. He knows “Ragtime” better than most. He was in the original Broadway cast, the first two national tours, and has staged multiple productions around the country.

The ambitious show runs three-hours with an intermission, but is surprisingly seamless even as sprawling numbers rotate from New Rochelle, to the Lower East Side, and Harlem.  Take a deep breath.  Resolution remains elusive.

Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime tells the story of three groups in the early 20th century as they become entwined and bump into real-life historical characters:

African Americans are represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, have Mother, matriarch of a white family in New Rochelle; and Eastern European immigrants, have Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia.

We meet them all in the first few minutes. More lead characters emerge as archetypes.

Young Elliot Weaver, a favorite in many local shows, peeks through a viewer and we imagine worn postcard landscapes.

Carolyn Agan brings feminism and compassion to the role of Mother, and her clear singing voice anchors the production.

Carolyn Agan, the archetype Mother, swings Elliot Weaver, as Little Boy in San Diego Musical Theatre's "Ragtime." Image: Ken Jacques

Carolyn Agan, the archetype Mother, swings Elliot Weaver, as Little Boy in San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Ragtime.” Image: Ken Jacques

Everything seems lovely for the upper class Anglos sheltered in the suburbs until her selfish husband, Father (Cris O’Brian), leaves for the arctic, and Younger Brother (Bryan Banville) gets mixed up with a showgirl and becomes a well-meaning criminal.

Ragtime paints a contradictory portrait that blurs then and now. The white Mother rescues a black abandoned baby, and shelters the child’s desperate mother. Sarah, played by Nicole Pryor, breaks our hearts in the pleading solo “Your Daddy’s Son.”

Jay Donnell as Coalhouse Walker Jr and Nicloe Pryor as Sarah in San Diego Musical Theatre's "Ragtime" at the Spreckels. Image: Ken Jacques

Jay Donnell as Coalhouse Walker Jr, and Nicole Pryor as Sarah in San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Ragtime” at the Spreckels. Image: Ken Jacques

Jay Donnell portrays that daddy with heart.  He sends an honest message as Coalhouse Walker Jr., the gifted pianist from Harlem who drives a fancy car. His solid vocals rattle nerves and the old theatre built in 1912. He fights for a new life with his family, but things go wrong. In biblical fashion, we know he’s doomed, yet that doesn’t make it easier to watch bullets explode as he demands justice.

When it all feels too tragic, we savor happier theater magic.

Jewish immigrant Tateh, played by Louis Pardo, struggles to give his daughter a new life in a new land. He sings the memorable line: “Where was the America we were supposed to get? Was it a silhouette?” It’s one of the few lines simple enough to recite.

The company of "Ragtime" at the Spreckels. Image: Ken Jacques

The company of “Ragtime” at the Spreckels. Image: Ken Jacques

Lyricist Lynn Ahren jams words into a shifting score. We can’t discern every word. The musical Ragtime could be called an operetta because most of it is sung, large and full-throated. Signaling the arrival of groups, Stephen Flaherty’s score evokes playful polyrhythms of Scott Joplin, as well as jazzy and Jewish inflections.

There are several dazzling numbers, such as “What a Game” with Father and the Little Boy at a baseball game, and “The Crime of the Century” led by Andi Davis as leggy and loveable showgirl Evelyn Nesbit.

America’s first super model screams “weee” as she swoops on a the red velvet swing.  Oh, what a welcome chuckle. We stifle our laughter though, because in real life she was “debauched” as a teenager and struggled as a model, actress, and Gibson Girl.

A masked ensemble portrays wrinkled old men who can’t resist her risqué charm. Dance sequences are simple and smart. Watching a handsome cast of varying shapes and sizes move to sharp rhythms is especially rewarding.

Along with the showgirl Nesbit, historical characters such as social justice leader Booker T. Washington (a commanding Vimel Sephus) and immigrant escape artist Harry Houdini (Michael Mittman) insert perspective like an old photo you’d find in a museum or grandma’s bible. They help to balance the turmoil and struggle for the American dream.

There are electric performances in this show about an era when electric lights were a marvel, and it’s a provocative portrait of life then and now. The contradictions of poverty and wealth, despair and hope are blunt reminders of how times change and remain the same.

Ragtime runs through Feb. 21.

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