Ragtime is a dawning: a new age, new life and new sounds. The anthemic 1996 musical portrays the conflicts at the turn of the 20th century between African Americans, Eastern European immigrants and upper-class white suburbanites. (Sound relevant?) With Stephen Flaherty’s soaring score, the lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally’s book turn something full of nostalgic Americana into a harrowingly relevant, tangible story.
Director Tomé Cousin focuses heavily on the story’s triptych. Each group is represented by a key character: Mother (Hanna Berggren), of the wealthy whites living in New Rochelle; Coalhouse Walker Jr. (John Clay III), a black pianist in Harlem; and Tateh (Clay Singer), a Jewish immigrant scouring America for opportunity. Ragtime questions what lies behind the silhouetted façade of America. Frank Blackmore and Katy Fetrow’s set features three looming, mobile steel towers bearing fragments of the American flag. Various animated and still projections never feel cohesive and distract from the action.
The main conflict in Ragtime, however, is Coalhouse’s rebellion against the racism inflicted upon him and his love, Sarah, who’s brought to life with tender fear and stirring vocals by Arica Jackson. Coalhouse, once a cool, sensitive man, becomes radical and defiant in combating oppression. Clay reveals a wealth of maturity. His Coalhouse is charismatic, enraged and syncopated, like the music he plays. Backing him is the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama’s epic ensemble, which bolsters every melody with force.
Every song in Ragtime builds from solo piano to full orchestrations. But while the scenes attempt to follow suit, the actors don’t always find that desired raw tension. One thing the eye does crave is stillness. The production is driving and constantly moving. It could help to have more moments of security, trusting a moment to settle and captivate. When Cousin finds passages of sharp focus, Ragtime hits your core, particularly in Coalhouse and Sarah’s painfully hopeful “Wheels of a Dream,” and in the glow of the final image: the silhouettes of diverse Americans approaching a new light.