Although the musical "Ragtime" starts out as the story of three families, it is ultimately the story of one vast family - the family that is America.
This epic subject is captured in soaring melodies and characterizations in the musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel. True, the scenically lean touring production at the Mechanic Theatre at times veers toward oratorio. But the gripping performances of several key members of the large, accomplished cast and the intricately crafted script - adapted by Terrence McNally - keep the action involving.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, "Ragtime" focuses on the unlikely coming together of a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, a Jewish immigrant family and an African-American family. It is significant that all three have small children since this is very much a show about growing up and learning from the past. Indeed, the musical is narrated by the prescient young son (alternately played by Charles Wollin and Harley Adams) of the unnamed WASP family.
The show's complex stories and themes are introduced in the glorious opening title number of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' rich and varied score. Choreographer Graciela Daniele peoples the stage with separate clumps of WASPs, blacks and immigrants who warily confront and circle around each other.
This number also introduces the iconic historical characters - such as escape artist Harry Houdini (wryly played by Eric Olson); black educator Booker T. Washington (infused with nobility by Leon Williams); and Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman (a zealous Mary Gutzi) - who serve as inspiration for the fictitious main characters.
Among the inspired is a Harlem piano player named Coalhouse Walker Jr., who envisions a future where his son will "travel with his head held high,/Just as far as his heart can go," and a poor immigrant artist called Tateh (Jim Corti), who promises his daughter, "Here in America/Anyone at all can succeed."
But America can throw up roadblocks, too, and when Coalhouse becomes the target of bigotry, the action of a few rednecks has repercussions that send most of the show's characters reeling.
One of the most affected is the WASP Mother, who starts out as an archetypal Victorian housewife and, largely because of her concern for Coalhouse's family, evolves into a modern, independent-minded woman. From her stately bearing to her superb singing, Victoria Strong imbues Mother with compassion and fortitude.
Hers is hardly the only towering performance. On opening night, Coalhouse was played by understudy Nathaniel Stampley (filling in for Lawrence Hamilton, who had a death in his family but is expected to return to the show tonight). Stampley's assured portrayal of this proud but grievously mistreated musician evinced so much dignity and intelligence, it was possible to sympathize with Coalhouse even after the character carried his outrage to extremes.
Stampley's duets, "Wheels of a Dream" and "Sarah Brown Eyes," sung with the stirring Lovena Fox as Sarah, the mother of his infant son, were among the emotional and musical high points of the evening.
And yet, as moving as this musical can be - and it is much more so than Doctorow's largely dispassionate novel - the show's impact is somewhat lessened in this production. The problem isn't merely that designer Eugene Lee's re-envisioned sets are more streamlined; after all, a bare stage can be a powerful showcase, as it occasionally is here. But at other times, deprived of further visual interest, Frank Galati's direction strands the actors in concert-like poses.
At its best, however, "Ragtime" remains a major achievement. Like the disparate notes and influences that come together to form ragtime music, the show paints a portrait of America as an all-embracing family made up of people of disparate races, nationalities and creeds. Flawed and struggling to find its way, this family embarks on a journey that can be as jagged as the syncopated rhythms of ragtime music, but as this challenging musical proves, it can also be liltingly melodic.