“Ragtime: The Musical” is a fascinating and winning choice for Bristol Riverside Theatre.
The production, which runs through April 12, follows the trials and tribulations of three distinctly different groups of people — an African-American musician, upper-class suburbanites and Eastern European immigrants — whose lives collide in America during the dawn of the 20th century.
The musical, which boasts a strong score and a memorable story, shows how far we’ve come as a society and how it wasn’t that long ago that race relations were horrible.
“Ragtime: The Musical,” which was based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, is as provocative and illuminating today as it was a generation ago. It’s a reminder of how uncivilized we can be and also how far love, kindness and understanding can take us.
Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Derrick Cobey) is busy working on a new style of music — ragtime — while traveling. His better half, Sarah, sick of his life on the road, leaves him and loses it as she abandons a baby in a garden in tony New Rochelle.
A sheltered matriarch of a patrician family finds the newborn and takes responsibility for Sarah (Ciji Prosser) and the child, who move in with her. Mother (Leslie Becker), who saves Sarah from a brush with the law, makes the decision shortly after her husband leaves for an expedition of the North Pole.
In the meantime, Latvian immigrant Tateh (Michael Thomas Holmes) and his daughter (Sofia Kalinda) have a brush with Mother and her evolving family while en route to Boston.
The adoption of the baby changes everyone’s lives, some for the better (Mother) and some for the worse (Father, portrayed by David Edwards).
Mother’s pedestrian, predictable existence is over and she revels in newfound purpose.
Father, shocked at the events which transpired during his five-month sojourn, loses control.
Coalhouse experiences the most fascinating transformation as he morphs from gentle and kind musician to intense revolutionary.
Terrence McNally’s book is full of clarity and surprises. Director Keith Baker hits the mark with the large ensemble cast.
Cobey, who has a tremendous set of pipes, is commanding and endearing as Coalhouse. Mother, portrayed by the gifted Becker, exudes warmth and sincerity. Holmes is amusing and touching as Tateh, who finds his niche — as a film director — in his new country .
A number of historical figures appear, including Harry Houdini (Will Connell), Booker T. Washington (Tamar Greene), Henry Ford (Paul Weagraff) and Evelyn Nesbit. The latter, portrayed by the stunning Chelsey Jean, stole scenes with subtlety and sexuality during a time that was innocent but also brutal.
“Ragtime” is a moving, well-acted production with some terrific voices that pump new life into an old warhorse.