Despite dull source material, ‘Ragtime’ sings with humanity and creativity

Ben Krantz Studio/Courtesy

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“Surprising” and “explosive” are not two words typically associated with a community theater’s production of an obscure musical that had a semi-successful Broadway run in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, in spite of these initial misgivings, no other adjectives perfectly encapsulate Berkeley Playhouse’s production of “Ragtime.”

With a book by Terrence McNally and music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, “Ragtime” follows three factions of people living in and around New York City in the early 20th century and their interwoven histories. A group of Black people in Harlem led by jazz musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Dave J. Abrams) and his past love Sarah (Marissa Rudd), a family of upper-middle-class white socialites spearheaded by a figure only referred to as “Mother” (Mindy Lym) and a pair of Latvian immigrants, Tateh (Mischa Stephens) and his daughter (Molly Graham), all dream of success in New York City.

To capture these three groups in all of their complexity is a difficult task, and the show falls just short of doing so. Tateh’s storyline in particular plays like a last-minute addition to the rest of the play’s plot, contributing almost nothing to the overarching conflict. While Tateh’s arc is brought into the fold at the end of Act 2 with a half-baked love story and a couple of lines to wrap everything up, his struggles never really click beyond a rather forced tokenism of the “immigrant experience.”

Yet the other two threads of the story work so well that it’s easy to forgive the shortcomings of the third. Abrams, Lym and Rudd brought a sense of humanity and passion to their performances that went well beyond the material they were given. Abrams’ performance as Coalhouse was electric, evolving believably from humorous jokester in the movin’ and groovin’ “Gettin’ Ready Rag” to a torn-apart, kneeling man in the heartbreaking standout “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy.”

Meanwhile, Lym played Mother with such earnestness and hope that the audience could not help but align with her views of a future America built on peace and diversity, despite every outcome of the performance pointing toward a darker direction for the country. She deconstructed the character of Mother from being a clear-cut definition of “white allyship” to being a frustrated woman concerned with the world around her but too comfortable to enact any real change.

Ben Krantz Studio/Courtesy

Ben Krantz Studio/Courtesy

But “Ragtime” belonged to Marissa Rudd. Sarah barely mutters a word for most of the musical’s duration, but the second Rudd opened her mouth to sing, everything else, from the stage to the outside world, became insignificant. From her first notes to the end of the performance, Rudd’s voice captured the totality of the audience’s attention. “Your Daddy’s Son,” sung on a balcony above the rest of the set with a single spotlight, was the defining highlight of the show, an earworm that will stick with audiences long after its end.

Director William Hodgson, lighting designer Bo Tindell and set and props designer Kirsten Royston transformed the Julia Morgan Theater from a static single stage into the ever-evolving New York of the early 20th century. Hodgson maneuvered the space with the use of shadows, lighting changes and constantly changing props with supreme ease, differentiating each location from the next in ways that pushed past the limitations of the small stage.

Hodgson’s direction made the theater a  sandbox of unlimited possibility, using sheets and shadows to dynamically highlight a particular character’s background and transforming a ragtime piano into a Ford Model T. Hodgson, Tindell and Royston transfigured the everyday into something spectacular, maintaining the show’s consistently dynamic nature.

Both the technical players and the actors brought life to a show that has been consistently, and perhaps correctly, ignored by the musical theater canon. Their combined ability to bring endless amounts of humanity and heart — to characters who are thinly written, music that sounds just about the same as every Broadway musical of the time and an overstuffed story — is no small feat. Yet the Berkeley Playhouse and its production team succeed tremendously, making “Ragtime” a musical that is not to be missed.

“Ragtime” will run at the Julia Morgan Theater through March 18.

Contact Nils Jepson at [email protected].