Given its imposing requirements—including a cast of 40, a 26-piece orchestra and a stage big enough to hold it all—it's no surprise that Ragtime isn't produced more often than it is. Since this adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's turn-of-the-century novel has challenged regional companies with exponentially larger resources, we wondered how The Justice Theater Project was going to pull it off.
Now we know: through several compromises that place this sprawling social landscape of early 20th-century America on a very small canvas. Still, when the music's good in this production, it has the power to move us.
In lieu of a live orchestra, this version uses a prerecorded instrumental soundtrack that sacrifices most of the spontaneity. Then the company orients this oversized production along the narrow sides of Claire Hall, instead of its broad back wall. That dynamic shoehorns cast and chorus onto Lex von Blommestein's claustrophobic set; its rudimentary timbers don't convey the Victorian settings of its central family's upper-class digs in New Rochelle.
Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's songs are moving, and their impact remains substantial. The night I saw this double-cast production, Mary Kathryn Walston's sharp-eyed Mother sensed the changes coming in affecting renditions of "Goodbye My Love" and "Back to Before." Allen Brown's striking work as Coalhouse Walker fueled the stirring duet "On the Wheels of a Dream" with Connie McCoy Rogers, playing Sarah, his sweetheart. Rogers graced her solo, "Your Daddy's Son," as well.
Jason Hassell's bland Father sang, but rarely acted through, his character's songs. And while Deb Royals is normally a much stronger director, this staging stayed too often static. Bits of business didn't always fill the time that soloists and chorus had to wait before the soundtrack came to the next verse, and problematic tech made audio balance between the recording and the unmiked singers an issue throughout the night.
Strong supporting work came from Ian Finley as Mother's Younger Brother, Coty Cockrell as Tateh, Alison Lawrence as labor radical Emma Goldman and Jade Arnold as a stern Booker T. Washington. Under Carolyn Colquitt's musical direction, a mighty chorus gave us chills, during the title song as well as "New Music" and Terra Hodge's memorable funeral song, "Till We Reach That Day."
It's Ragtime on a shoestring, but when the shoe fits, it's worth the wearing.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Forgotten histories."