From the opening notes of the new production of Ragtime at the Miracle Theatre, one thing is strikingly clear: This epic, panoramic musical may turn out to be one of the best shows Actors’ Playhouse has ever done.
By the end of a magnificently sung evening, that possibility becomes a promise fulfilled.
Based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, transformed into a Tony Award-winning 1998 Broadway musical by composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens and playwright Terrence McNally, Ragtime paints a portrait of multifaceted, multicultural America in the early years of the 20th century.
The thrilling title song that opens the show introduces the invented and real-life characters whose lives, over the course of nearly three riveting hours, intertwine in a blend of dreams, love and tragedy.
First to appear are the white residents of New Rochelle, N.Y., the women with lacy parasols and elaborate hats, both genders dressed in elegant cream-colored clothing attesting to their wealth. Then the folks from Harlem, sharp-dressed men and women in floral-patterned dresses, dance their way into the scene.
Last come the Eastern European immigrants, newly arrived on “rag ships,” their heavy winter garb suggesting that this clothing — and hope — are all they have. Looking down from above are headline-making figures: auto magnate Henry Ford (Gabriel Zenone), political firebrand Emma Goldman (Irene Adjan), illusionist Harry Houdini (Joshua Dobarganes), notorious beauty Eveyln Nesbit (Stephanie White), black leader Booker T. Washington (Reggie Whitehead), financier J.P. Morgan (Ken Clement).
When those voices, some 40 in all, are at last joined together in song, the power and beauty of the sound is glorious. You’ll seldom hear better on Broadway or anywhere else.
Director David Arisco and two key collaborators, musical director David Nagy and choreographer Ron Hutchins, have crafted a Ragtime that glides from one scene to the next, telling their resonant story through dialogue, music and dance. Ellis Tillman, who created nearly 300 costumes for the show, articulately helps tell that story through design. And from the leads to the hard-working ensemble, the cast impressively navigates a piece that is operatic in its scope and demands.
If casting is half the battle when it comes to putting together a superb production, Arisco won the war when he chose Melissa Minyard and Mark Sanders to play Mother and Father, the traditional white couple; Don Juan Seward II and Sarah Nicole Batts to play ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Sarah, mother of his baby boy; and Tally Sessions as Tateh, the Latvian Jewish widower determined to make a better life for his little girl.
All except the opera-trained Batts have done major roles at Actors’ Playhouse before, and the work they’re doing in Ragtime soars. Minyard delivers gorgeous solos on Goodbye, My Love and What Kind of Woman and Back to Before. Her duet with Sessions on Our Children and her trio with Sessions and Sanders on Journey On are among the show’s highlights.
Batts delivers a deeply emotional Your Daddy’s Son. She exudes joy as she and Seward imagine the future on Wheels of a Dream, and their retrospective Sarah Brown Eyes is both lovely and heartbreaking. Seward — charismatic, grief-stricken, full of fury — comes into his own as a leading man in his fierce interpretation of Coalhouse. Sessions, who won a best actor Carbonell Award for his unforgettable performance in Floyd Collins at Actors’ Playhouse, is extraordinary as the father who, like so many Americans, reinvents himself.
In other key roles, Dominique Scott is a bit too much adrift as the rudderless Younger Brother, George Schiavone is amusing as plainspoken Grandfather, and Max Leifman (alternating with Julian Gorelick) is winning as the prescient Little Boy, based on clairvoyant Edgar Cayce. Nick Duckart is, as he should be, a beast as racist fireman Willie Conklin. Julia Dale (alternating with Athena Pacanins) makes you understand Tateh’s protectiveness as his Little Girl. White is trouble in a bustier as Nesbit, Dobarganes is a magnetic Houdini, and Adjan is a pot-stirring Goldman. Fredena J. Williams as Sarah’s Friend leads a mournful, soul-stirring Till We Reach That Day. As Coalhouse’s son, tiny Eli Burris (alternating with Caleb Chiang and Zoe Burris) runs out when the show is nearly over and promptly walks off with every heart in the audience.
Actors’ Ragtime is an ambitious achievement, but it isn’t totally flawless. Tim Bennett’s massive set, with its faux marble base under “ironwork” archways, creates a striking framework for the action, but many of the pieces that get wheeled on and off look minimalistic and unfinished. The sound at Friday’s opening night performance was at times inexcusably bad, with microphone volumes being brought up late or crackling like a roaring fire.
Though the events of Ragtime take place a century ago, what the show has to say — about justice, respect, racial tension, economic disparity, women’s lives, the American dream — is thought-provokingly relevant to a 21st century audience. Thanks to the skills of Arisco and his many collaborators, those memorably delivered messages come through loud and clear and beautifully sung.
If you go
What: ‘Ragtime’ by Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally.
Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional 2 p.m. matinee Feb. 4), through Feb. 22.
Cost: $59 Friday-Saturday, $52 other shows.
Information: 305-444-9293 or www.actorsplayhouse.org,