With a book by highly regarded playwright Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the musical Ragtime is almost as sprawling as E. L. Doctorow’s hugely popular 1975 novel on which it was based. The new production at Donelson Senior Center for the Arts, Nashville’s first-ever local mounting, is a large-scale effort that occasionally suffers from amateurish (if sincere) acting. By and large, though, it’s a surprisingly effective reading of this slice of American life during the first decade of the 20th century.
Ragtime has almost operatic ambitions, and we’re clued in immediately when the lengthy opening number introduces us to the cast of 50. The milieu is New York City, where the white Anglo-Saxon establishment is in charge, though change is at hand. While European immigrants arrive at Ellis Island in droves, African Americans restlessly seek equality and job opportunities, thus threatening the lower-class Irish. Meanwhile, labor activist Emma Goldman inspires workers to strike, incurring the wrath of industrialists like J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford. Burlesque, baseball, magician Harry Houdini and moving pictures begin to take hold of the American imagination, and Teddy Roosevelt has become president following the assassination of William McKinley, with the political trail eventually leading to the eve of World War I.
This overplot provides the framework for a story of three families—whites in suburban New Rochelle, blacks in Harlem, and Jews on the Lower East Side—whose lives intertwine, sometimes tragically. There’s so much singing here that it’s hard to keep track of the numbers, which must total upward of 40; many of them flow right into one another, in shifting musical styles that capture the spirit of the hodgepodge of humanity in constant motion before us. Pianist/musical director Mark Beall leads a tight five-piece combo who meet the challenge of the demanding score.
The stage at Donelson Senior Center for the Arts gets a little cramped at times, but on balance, director Kaine Riggan does his Cecil B. DeMille-best to keep the crowd scenes flowing amid a fair amount of minimally clunky set changes. The settings themselves, designed by Vance Nichols, aren’t bad considering the logistical circumstances, and the costumes (which go uncredited) sufficiently conjure the historical period.
In assembling the necessarily diverse cast, Riggan has cast his net widely, and while a few major players betray their inexperience, others perform with professional assuredness. The latter include Dan McGeachy, Ella Glasgow, Noah Johnson and Jason Klavenga. Joe Watts Jr., as the ragtime piano player Coalhouse Walker, is the real standout. With his versatile, soulful tenor and commanding stage presence, he keeps the main story in focus amid the teeming big-city atmosphere.
Nashville Vice Mayor Howard Gentry is also on hand, playing the conciliatory role of Booker T. Washington. He sings and acts about as well as he conducts Metro Council meetings—competently, and with a muted savoir-faire.
The moments of greatest power come when the youthful African American choristers—from Hillsboro and McGavock high schools and the Nashville School of the Arts—are belting out their group numbers. The students rise to the occasion; their voices induce chills and stir the emotions. Holly Whitaker, in particular, is superb, turning her brief solo into a major event.
Ragtime would be an ambitious undertaking for any major theatrical company, much less a community ensemble working in a space roughly the size of a grammar-school auditorium. That this production comes out so well is a testament to both the strong material and the commitment of the performers.