It’s one of my all time favorite musicals: the monumental and deeply American tale based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel RAGTIME! Producing director Meg Fofonoff’s Fiddlehead Theatre Company–in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union– mounted this Tony-Award-winning musical as the season opener at the newly refurbished Strand Theatre in Dorchester. Ragtime’s themes of social justice resonate with the ACLU’s mission. On opening night, I led a talk-back with the cast and the ACLU after a nearly three hour production. We were all invigorated by the remarkable relevance the musical’s themes have today, on the eve of an election where what it means to be “American” is at the heart of the discourse.
RAGTIME is a tale of the turbulent beginnings of the 20th century with its wave of immigrants, the industrial revolution, and every group scrambling to find or keep its place. Race, women’s rights, the justice system, the dispersal of wealth, the rise of unions, the beginnings of pop culture, movie making, the American Dream– all of it finds expression here in a hauntingly beautiful score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Ragtime music is the metaphor for change; the beat is no longer square — it’s a little “offbeat,” ragged, syncopated; like the times, it’s got a wrinkle in it and the rhythm– a precursor to jazz– is only going to get more complicated as time goes on.
Terrence McNally’s brilliant adaptation orchestrates a collision of colorful characters of the era — Houdini, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, rabble-rouser Emma Goldman, and Evelyn Nesbit who sparked the “first” crime of the century– to convey the richness and diversity of the era.
At the heart of the story, is musician Coalhouse Walker–dynamically played by Damian Norfleet. His deep ringing baritone echoes his righteous indignation as he pursues social justice at any cost. The gorgeous Shonna Cirone as “Mother” sang with a soprano so clear it made me cry. Michael S. Dunavant as the rebellious son of a conservative white father brought his character’s commitment to the fore with soaring vocals. Adam Shapiro as Tateh, movie-mogul in the making, was touching and vibrant. Only Tia DeShazor as Coalhouse’s love Sarah lacked the requisite vocal power.
Technical difficulties with miking were annoying, lighting could have been more subtle and evocative, but ultimately none of that marred the overarching dramatic impact of this production and its execution by a top notch cast. Several nights later, the music and sentiments invoked are still running through my head and heart.
Don’t miss RAGTIME at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester only through October 7!