‘Ragtime’ an impressive epic – Union Tribune by James Hebert

 In Reviews

The company of San Diego Musical Theatre’s “Ragtime.” — Ken Jacques
History spills onto the stage in San Diego Musical Theatre’s rousing “Ragtime.”
And then it spills right off the stage and onto the Spreckels Theatre balconies, where some cast members materialize to perform the ensemble number “New Music” early in the show.
Not every tune here requires pushing actors clear out into the house, but “Ragtime” is one epic musical (running three hours over two acts), and SDMT’s full-throated staging is suitably sprawling, with 41 in the cast and 21 musicians in the pit.
It’s a tribute to director-choreographer Paul David Bryant’s production, though, that the intimate moments land with as much impact as the big ones.
You can count among the former “Wheels of a Dream,” the moving duet that comes right after “New Music” and elucidates the bond between Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Jay Donnell) and Sarah (Nicole Pryor), the mother of his child.
Coalhouse, a gifted pianist from Harlem, is more or less the main figure in “Ragtime,” the 1998 Broadway show based on the history minded 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow.
But Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning adaptation gives Coalhouse a whole lot of company, as “Ragtime” ricochets among three sets of characters in Greater New York during the early 1900s: the African-American community of Harlem, the immigrants of the Lower East Side and a well-to-do white family in New Rochelle.
What brings them together are seismic forces of cultural, social and political change, set to the distinctive musical style (then considered a little risqué) that gives the piece its name.
When all is said and sung (and mostly sung; “Ragtime” rarely pauses for dialogue) this is a sometimes overambitious but still potent show that, in typical SDMT style, boasts an excellent cast, sharp visuals and richly textured sounds from musical director Don LeMaster’s orchestra.
The soulful and strong-voiced Donnell feels right in tune with Coalhouse, the tragic hero who starts out trying to reunite his family and winds up a divisive martyr in the fight against injustice.
Coalhouse is trying to woo the estranged Sarah back when we first meet him. But she has been taken in by the New Rochelle family after she left her baby with them in desperation. (Pryor delivers knockout vocals in the role.)
True to the mythical (occasionally biblical) strains of the piece, we only come to know the family members as Mother, Father, Little Boy and the like.
Orbiting through their story on occasion is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Louis Pardo), who struggles to support his young daughter by selling cutout portraits on the street for small change.
His plight inspires one of lyricist Lynn Ahrens’ most telling lines, set to the period-perfect music of her songwriting partner Stephen Flaherty: Where was the America we were supposed to get? Was it a silhouette?
“Ragtime” dips into plenty of-the-moment issues, from immigration to the living wage to racial bias and police brutality. As earnest as the show can get at times, though, it still resounds with real humanity, helped along at SDMT by a string of solid supporting performances.
Bryan Banville is a vibrant presence as the disaffected Younger Brother, who winds up aligning himself with Coalhouse’s outlaw crusade for justice. Carolyn Agan’s powerful and captivating voice carries the show at times as the compassionate Mother, opposite Cris O’Bryon’s more brittle and increasingly conflicted Father. (Ralph Johnson also makes for a comically crotchety Grandfather.)
Pardo brings plenty of heart and humor to Tateh (although some of his lines were a little soft-spoken on opening night). And young Elliot Weaver — already a veteran of the Old Globe’s “Grinch” and other local shows — is a buoyant presence as the Little Boy.
“Ragtime” also salts in historical characters, including the fiery workers’ advocate Emma Goldman (Abby Gershuny), the escape artist Harry Houdini (Michael Mittman) and the African-American icon Booker T. Washington (a standout Vimel Sephus).
After a wrenching climax, the show’s final image is one of harmony and reconciliation. And yet as heartwarming and hopeful as that might be, it doesn’t feel completely earned.
Not after what we’ve seen — and what we know is still to be.

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