THEATER REVIEW: "Ragtime"

The U.S. came by its “melting pot” reputation honestly, beginning as a haven for malcontents and others who came here to escape real or imagined persecution, and becoming (for a time, at least) a wide-open new land of dreams where nearly anything was possible.

San Diego Musical Theatre presents a stunning production of the 1998 musical “Ragtime” (book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) through Feb. 21 at the Spreckels Theatre.

Based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel, “Ragtime” tells the stories of three groups of people who came to New York at the turn of the 20th century in search of the American dream: a well-to-do white family in upscale New Rochelle; black ragtime musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Jay Donnell) and his friends in Harlem, and widowed East European immigrant and silhouette artist Tateh (Louis Pardo) and his young daughter (Juliet Garbacz).

Privilege is portrayed by Father (Cris O’Bryon), who can afford to leave New Rochelle to accompany Admiral Peary (Paul Morgavo) to the North Pole, leaving Mother (Carolyn Agan) alone with son Edgar (Elliot Weaver).

The ragtime era is represented by Donnell’s terrific portrayal of ragtime pianist Coalhouse, who becomes an activist after suffering one too many racist taunts.

And Tateh, who makes a meager living as a street artist, represents the many immigrants who, like him, came to America in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

Add to these several other characters, including industrialist Henry Ford, magician Harry Houdini, activist Booker T. Washington, anarchist Emma Goldman and vaudeville entertainer Evelyn Nesbit – and you’ll understand why this sweeping and extremely busy show runs nearly three hours.

Fear not, the efforts of fine director/choreographer Paul David Bryant, an excellent cast and a terrific technical team ensure that you won’t be bored.

“Ragtime” is unusual in several ways. Scope is just one. The music, written to serve the plot more directly than is usually the case, is almost an extension of the dialogue.

There’s too much plot to describe here, but one poignant moment stands out. After Father has left, Mother is shocked to find a black newborn in her garden.

She is even more surprised when police arrive with the baby’s mother, washerwoman Sarah (a heartbreaking Nicole Pryor) in tow, intending to book her on an attempted murder charge.

Mother makes an immediate decision to take both Sarah and the baby in without consulting Father, then wonders in “What Kind Of Woman” whether that was the right thing to do.

It’s the humanity of moments like this that make the show so engaging.

“Ragtime” is a visual as well as musical feast, and lighting designer Michael Van Hoffman deserves much of the credit for his consistently striking stage pictures.

Donnell, Agan, Pryor and Pardo carry much of the plot, and they give excellent readings of their characters (though Pardo could modify the accent a bit; he is sometimes difficult to understand).

Kudos to Bryant and this huge cast (41), and to the excellent 21-member orchestra brilliantly conducted by Don Le Master.

“Ragtime” won four Tonys in 1998, and if you’ve never seen it, you owe it to yourself to see this fine production. If you have seen it, it’s worth seeing again.

The details

“Ragtime” runs through February 21, 2016 at the Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown.

Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (858) 560-5740 or www.sdmt.org