Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, the musical tells a fictional story of imagined characters and people from history whose lives intersect in 1902, and who make the musical, which opened in 1998, relevant today.
At the heart of the story is the discovery of a black baby buried in the garden of a wealthy white family in New Rochelle, New York. Side plots, intermixed with the main narrative, feature celebrities of the day: Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, and Harry Houdini.
This weaving of the fictional and the historical sets Ragtime apart from other musicals.
San Diego Musical Theatre’s 41-member cast of singers and 21-piece orchestra capture the musical’s grandeur.
Jay Donnell as Coalhouse Walker, III and Carolyn Agan as Mother lead this collective with strong vocals and stage presence.
Another standout: Abby Gershuny’s Emma Goldman. A radical feminist/anarchist who fought for the rights of working class immigrants, Goldman’s proclamations about the greed of the affluent 1 percent and disparaged blue-collar workers longing for the American Dream offer a glimpse into the relevance of Ragtime for 2016.
Nicole Pryor delivers an exceptional rendition of Sarah, mother of the discarded baby. An unfortunate encounter she has with a white policeman parallels the stories of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin.
Ragtime asks the still-unanswered questions regarding racial discrimination and an inefficient legal system failing to provide justice for all.
In addition to race relations and workers’ rights, the story begins with a flood of immigrants clamoring for safe refuge and the promise of new beginnings.
Louis Pardo as Tateh gives a powerful rendition of “A Shtetl iz Amerike,” expressing his being unwelcome, neglected, and desperate in America.
With the millions of Syrian refuges currently seeking to rebuild their shattered lives, Ragtime shows how little the world has changed.
The unit set, a decorative, faux metalwork on scaffolding, has the look of the art nouveau architecture of the time while providing levels and depths for the large cast. No set designer is credited, but whoever designed it should be commended.
Desiree Hatfield-Buckley’s costumes and Danielle Griffith’s wigs convey turn-of-the-century styles.
Director and choreographer Paul David Bryant played swing in the original Broadway production of Ragtime and has directed it seven times. This long history with the musical shows in the SDMT production’s precision. All elements balance so well, this is as good as Ragtime can be.
Playing through February 21.