Park Square Theatre's production of the musical Ragtime is the show of the year, but I know that it's only January, and there are 11 months to go. But 2012 would have to be a pretty good year for this show not to make it onto my end of the year best of list. I was a little afraid my expectations would be too high; I've been looking forward to this show for months because Ragtime is one of my favorite musical theater soundtracks and the cast list looked superb. But I was not disappointed, the show lived up to my expectations in every way. The cast is indeed superb and includes several of my favorites in top form; the music sounds divine thanks to the depth of talent in the large ensemble and the fantastic orchestra (as expected when Denise Posek of Theater Latte Da is the Music Director); and the costumes, choreography, and sparse set all add to the feeling of time and place - 1906 in New York City and its suburbs. With a cast of 35, this is Park Square's largest production to date, but the stage did not feel crowded, just full of life and music and pain and beauty.
Ragtime is based on the 1975 E.L. Doctorow novel of the same name and tells the story of three families - an upper class White family, an African American family, and an immigrant family. The three families' lives become intertwined with each other, as well as with several historical events and figures, such as anarchist Emma Goldman, magician Harry Houdini, and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit (played by Kersten Rodau, Sasha Andreev, and Caroline Innerbichler, all perfectly cast and wonderful in their roles). The hero of our story is Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (the charismatic Harry Waters, Jr.), a ragtime piano player in love with a poor servant named Sarah (Brittany Bradford in a beautiful performance that's completely different from the last time I saw her, as Gary Coleman in Avenue Q). Coalhouse's journey takes a drastic turn when he's faced with discrimination and tragedy.
Sarah lives with the seemingly perfect well-to-do family consisting of a father, a mother, and a son, as well as mother's younger brother and father. Curiously, these characters (with the exception of the son, Edgar) don't have names, so that they could be anyone or everyone. I've seen Lee Mark Nelson and Christina Baldwin many times, but I don't think I've ever seen them perform together. It was worth the wait, they both give great performances as these layered characters. Mark makes Father both sympathetic and aggravating as he's caught in the old ways and refuses to change. Christina gives Mother such strength and yearning, hope and determination, and her voice is amazing as always, especially in the moving ballad "Back to Before." Noah Coon is adorable as little Edgar, the boy who mysteriously knows more than he should (warn the duke!). Finally, Younger Brother is on a journey all his own, always looking for something to cling to and finding it in unfortunate places (or persons). Aleks Knezevich (the rightful captain of the Pinafore) is perfect for the role in this perfectly cast show.
At the center of our third family is another one of my favorites, Dieter Bierbrauer, as a poor immigrant trying to make a better life for his daughter (the adorable and talented Megan Fischer, who doesn't have as much to do here as in last year's Annie). Tateh's path crosses with Mother's several times, in what turns out to be a most excellent love triangle. (Lee Mark Nelson, Christina Baldwin, and Dieter Bierbrauer singing in three-part harmony, I thought I'd died and gone to Minnesota musical theater heaven!) All of the characters in this story are connected somehow, and what each does affects the others. The ensemble is spectacular, and several of them shine in their spotlight moments, such as Timotha Lanae (who was also on board the Pinafore last summer) as Sarah's friend.
In addition to the perfect cast and music, the choreography (by another Latte Da regular Michael Matthew Ferrell), set design (by Rick Polenek), and costumes (designed by Andrea M. Gross) also add to the production. I'm not sure where the direction (by Gary Gisselman) ends and choreography begins when you're moving this many people around a small stage, but not only is it flawlessly done but it also really enriches the characters and helps define their story. The same can be said for the costumes, especially in the opening sequence, when all the upper class people are dressed in pale linen, the immigrants in dark earth tones, and the "Negroes" in bolder colors, creating an obvious division that melts away as their stories blur together. The stage is sparse, with a second story around the edge of the stage to allow for characters to come and go in the background. The few set pieces almost look like "silhouettes" (as Tateh sings), allowing the story to be the focus. A screen is occasionally lowered to display real images from the time period, further adding to the sense of time and place.
This is a heavy show, at times so difficult to watch that I closed my eyes to try to erase the images of violence and injustice. But there are also lighter moments of humor (I particularly enjoyed the ode to baseball, "What a Game"). I read the book after first seeing the musical in 1998, and remember thinking that it's not a book that screams "make me into a musical!" But it proves that no topic is off limits for musical theater, if done thoughtfully and respectfully and creatively. Ragtime is such a musical.
This country is always struggling, always changing, always trying to better itself. And there are always going to be tragedies and set-backs along the way, but hopefully each generation leaves the world slightly better for the next generation, for all the Coalhouse Walker IIIs of the world. Ragtime deals with what it's like to be an American, then and now, good and bad. As Gary Gisselman said in a post-show discussion, it's about racism and immigrants and the rich vs. the poor, themes that we are still dealing with today. But it's also about family and love and hope for the future. Ragtime officially opens tonight and plays through February 19, and it's definitely worth seeing. It may even be worth seeing twice!
Ragtime trailer from Park Square Theatre on Vimeo.