In the earliest moments of the musical “Ragtime,” the sounds of celestial divinity pierce the ear, audile candy offered in the form of rich, intricate harmonies.
Different odes to the various storylines are represented in the musical’s scintillating prologue that foreshadows the triumph and heartache of America at the turn of the 20th century.
It is divine music when performed live, but also jubilant within the original 1998 Broadway cast album featuring legends Audra McDonald, Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell. Yet despite the rapturous luminosity that often permeates the show within its nearly three-hour run time, a TheaterWorks Silicon Valley revival now playing in Mountain View exposes some critical conundrums in the narrative, bringing forth dynamics that have aged poorly.
The company’s production was a casualty of the pandemic in March of 2020, only making it through Week 2 of rehearsals before being shelved. The show has roared back, fully lush in voice, fluidity and design, stewarded neatly by former TheaterWorks artistic director Robert Kelley.
While the Easter eggs of the show come in the form of many historical figures interspersed throughout Terrence McNally’s fine, Tony Award-winning book, the core of the story revolves around three families living firmly in their respective social castes. There is the family from suburban New Rochelle, NY, who enjoy a world devoid of racial diversity. Yet Mother (Christine Dwyer) carries a strong moral and social conscience that is tested constantly. Another group is the Harlemites — the insanely handsome and talented ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Nkrumah Gatling) and his lovely lost love Sarah (Iris Beaumier), who faces a difficult struggle trying to raise her small child. Finally, the Latvian immigrant Tateh (Leo Ash Evens) enters the United States through Ellis Island, with his young daughter and upstart, business acumen in tow.
McNally’s work here, adapted from EL Doctorow’s 1975 book of the same title, provides many riches and some uncomfortable truths and exposes prescient parallels that hit hard in modern times, making 2022 and 1908 feel way too close. There is certainly hope for the fresh-faced immigrants who now occupy the ever-evolving United States, a land still ripe with promise and possibilities.
While Mother constantly works to justify her decision to take in a Black family to her husband, the self-absorbed, thrill-seeking and unaccommodating Father (Noel Anthony), Tateh takes on a tact that is ripped right out of American lore. He is a man who sells silhouettes with his hopeful child his, leading him out of the impoverished streets of New York City ‘s Lower East Side and towards a transformative and lucrative career in the film industry.
The luscious score written by the duo of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens has a well-earned reputation of elegant superabundance. The musical’s tale is of the sweeping variety, the score a solid mix of recitative plot exposure and over-the-top power ballads. There is also scintillating glee to the costume design of B. Modern and an astronomically high level of artistry with Wilson Chin’s scenic design, constantly offering another layer of texture to accentuate each and every locale on display.
Mother serves as the moral core between all the groups, and is sung beautifully by Dwyer. Evens’ Tateh is a proper balance of empathy, humor and hope. Yet the most devastating arcs belong to Gatling and Beaumier, who sing their roles with heart and gusto oozing from each note. The stunningly talented Gatling handles Walker’s devastating descent with plenty of skillful transitions and high musicianship.
What happens to such good people in the story’s conclusion makes for an awkward reckoning of the story as a whole in the show’s epilogue, a moment that plays poorly in today’s zeitgeist, but maybe hit differently in its Broadway premiere 24 years ago. Seeing the decimation of two Black people in the manner in which they are destroyed by this nation, and then singing about the virtues of what this country can be for the children mere moments later rings hollow. The final tableau, with a massive American flag hovering over the proceedings in some feeble kumbaya moment is awkward and clumsy. It raises the question — for whom was this denouement written?
The problematic conclusion doesn’t fully take away the show’s lofty aspirations — certainly, no one would argue against a world where equity and justice for all would be the norm. Unfortunately, while “Ragtime” is rooted in historical fiction, its attempt to function as an honest ideal can feel light years away from reality.
David John Chávez is chair of the American Theater Critics Association and served as a juror for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Twitter: @davidjchavez.
Music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally, adapted from the novel by EL Doctorow, presented by TheaterWorks Silicon Valle.
Through: June 26
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, 1 intermission
Health & safety: Proof of vaccination required, masks must be worn in the theater
Tickets: $25-$90; theaterworks.org.