Make Way for Change

<em>Ragtime</em> packs a powerful message of acceptance and hope inside soaring songs and dynamic performances

In its early 1900s heyday, ragtime music was a menace. It threatened the norms of high society. It gave minority groups the chance to thrive. And it was catchy. Boy, was it catchy—just like the musical now playing at St. Paul’s Park Square Theater.

Ragtime the musical is the condensed, powerful, pack-a-punch production crafted from E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. The narrative follows three families trying to maneuver their way through the constant change that was America in 1902. This was a time when new immigrants, an ambitious African American population, and an uncertain white population filled the streets of New York; a time when Harry Houdini (Sasha Andreev) and socialite Evelyn Nesbit (Caroline Innerbichler) were the main attraction; a time when Booker T. Washington (Shawn Hamilton) and Emma Goldman (Kersten Rodau) fought endlessly for equality. It was a constant clash of old and new, tradition and change—themes that are as relevant today as ever.

Director Gary Gisselman expertly uses every inch of stage and ounce of talent provided to him in staging this grandiose musical. Choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell and music director Denise Prosek share in Gisselman’s vision, resulting in a production of Broadway caliber.

The first family we’re introduced to is an upper-class white family: Mother (Christina Baldwin), Father (Lee Mark Nelson), Grandfather (Fred Mackaman), Younger Brother (Aleks Knezevich), and The Little Boy (Noah Coon). The fact that playwright Terrence McNally (who adapted Doctorow’s novel) left out the characters’ names is significant: this is an every-family, the ideal—at least until Father leaves on an Antarctic voyage.

A single parent for a year, Mother decides it’s time to start flexing some authority over her life. She discovers an abandoned African American baby in her garden one afternoon and tracks down the child’s mother, Sarah (Brittany Bradford), deciding to house both mother and child. Her compassion is rare and beautiful and is aptly portrayed by Baldwin, who soars in this role. Watching her transform from a submissive wife into an independent woman is a treat.

Soon the family grows to also include the child’s father, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Harry Waters Jr.), a ragtime pianist. This commingling of class, race, and culture represents in a nutshell the integration (or attempted integration) of these elements in America at large. And although it may have worked for their family, other scenes from the play—union strikes, hate crimes, immigrant protests—show what we already know in 2012: America still had a long way to go.

Tateh and his daughter, Little Girl (Megan Fischer), represent the ever-growing immigrant population. Tateh (played opening night by understudy Dan Beckmann, normally played by Dieter Bierbrauer) has come to America to capitalize its promise of being everything to everyone. What he finds instead is cruelty and limited opportunity. Beckmann captured Tateh’s frustration and passion with impressive depth, giving a dynamic performance not normally expected of an understudy.

Then again, everything about Gisselman’s Ragtime exceeds expectation, from the stage, designed by Rick Polenek, to each individual actor’s performance. This is an ambitious production, covering themes from racism to feminism to class structure in a grand, revelvant, and exciting way. Ragtime may have been written as a look-back at 1902 America, but it is equally powerful and pertinent to America today.

Through February 19
Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Pl., St. Paul, 651-291-7005