With Stephen Flaherty’s catchy Joplinesque riff accompanying, three brigades of characters meet on the stage of the Bristol Riverside Theater for Keith Baker’s superb production of “Ragtime.”
The first cadre dressed all in white — crisp day suits for the men and prim Victorian finery for the women — represent rock-ribbed established Americans whose families date from pre-Revolutionary times to the days of Theodore Roosevelt, when “Ragtime” is set. The next wave are the blacks, referred to as the Negroes, and as well caparisoned although in more stylish, colorful, patterned clothing. They represent the first generation to reach adulthood without having been slaves, people who are building a culture of their own while assimilating into a wider society and declaring themselves to be what they’ve been for centuries, Americans.
The third group contains the Jews, the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, and others escaping from European poverty and tyranny to find refuge and dignity in America. They are dressed in tatters that mark them as foreigners as much as their accents and unfamiliarity with American customs do. The way Baker and choreographer Stephen Casey organize and marshal these waves of humanity puts Bristol’s “Ragtime” into immediate context.
We clearly see the amazing event that is occurring during a rarely discussed but seminal era in American history: 1900 to 1914, between wars, when the United States began turning from a mostly homogeneous society of Caucasian Christians to the melting pot Emma Lazarus presages when she writes about people “yearning to be free” in “The New Colossus.”
Composer Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and script writer Terrence McNally have taken the tone, spirit, and theme of E.L. Doctorow’s landmark novel, “Ragtime,” and transformed it to the stage with all the elegance and historical richness of the original. “Ragtime” rings with sentiment and authority as it engrossingly depicts the changes and clashes that will remold America.
Not only are ethnic groups blending, but women seek suffrage, prejudice finds vent, new ideas about social structure are simmering, and even individuals from the comfortable WASP majority are looking for ways to assert themselves and advance a more integrated United States. Flaherty, Ahrens, and McNally capture this energy and present it with piercing precision and show business savvy. “Ragtime” builds constantly. It takes on heart as it shows the complexities and complications of a culture on the brink of quiet but irreversible change.
In addition to the white and immigrant focal characters who, except for a young boy, are given no names, and the black protagonists whose names, Coalhouse and Sarah, remain in your memory, the playwrights take Doctorow’s lead and pepper their musical with celebrities that epitomize the turn of the 20th century — Henry Ford, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, and Evelyn Nesbit. By cleverly insinuating them into the story, the authors comment on the industrial revolution, politics, and the American taste for the unusual and the sensational.
Keith Baker does not miss a stride or syncopated beat as he brings all of this richness and history to the Bristol stage. With faultless timing, meticulous thoroughness, transparent clarity, and recognition of and compassion for the various characters and what they represent, Baker offers a gripping epic that concretely spells out the new patterns and ideas being woven into the American fabric. He also gives individual performers the room and time to give their characters depth and perspective.
I will go on a limb to say that “Ragtime,” from 1997, is the most recent great American musical — “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “Spring Awakening,” and “The Book of Mormon” noted — because it has scope and insight it reveals by concentrating on individuals, enlightening dialogue, and a lush, passionate score.
Baker harnesses all of “Ragtime’s” greatness. He does not hurry his production. He gives scenes and dramatic upheavals time to breathe. This leads to intensity and makes several of the characters moving, as if they were our relatives. We care and want so much good for them.
Derrick Cobey brings magnitude and humanity to Coalhouse Walker, a gentle jazz pianist driven to extreme acts by extreme injustice. Even when Coalhouse crosses tolerable lines, Cobey shows honesty and commitment along with rage and stubbornness. Leslie Becker conveys the innate common sense of Mother, who makes decisions based on practical reasons and does not conform to custom or what purports to be prevailing wisdom. Ciaran Edward Barlow is natural as Edgar, the boy who is learning the world and often blurts out key information. Michael Thomas Holmes is sweet and realistic as Tateh, a Jew who seeks to give his daughter a worry-free life and is enthusiastic about entrepreneurial ventures. Fine work is also contributed by Ciji Prosser, Matt Leisy, Sarah J. Gafgen, Will Connell, Sofia Kalinda, Tamar Greene, and Paul Weagraff. David Edwards is commanding, and ultimately touching, as Father.
Ryan Touhey’s orchestra is excellent. Linda B. Stockton had a keen eye for costuming the various groups of characters. Stephen Casey’s dances are tops.
Ragtime, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, April 12, Wednesday and Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $42 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.