When E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was published in 1975, hailed immediately as a major literary work, it would have been hard to picture it as a Broadway musical. But as PCPA Theaterfest’s scintillating revival at the Solvang Festival Theatre shows, Ragtime the musical hasn’t lost its magic.
The cast of 49, including guest stars and members of the summer theater company, shows plenty of bite, wit and talent in the musical, which runs three hours with intermission.
Heading the cast, as the outraged hero Coalhouse Walker Jr., is David St. Louis. Along with an Equity card, he is possessed of a rich baritone singing voice and acting skills honed on Broadway and in film and television. Coalhouse Walker Jr. is a commanding figure, as he goes from a self-confident young black man courting his girl to a fugitive demanding justice at the point of his gun.
The second pivotal character is Mother, here glowingly played and sung by Elizabeth Stuart, also an Equity player. Mother is a genteel, sheltered white woman in New Rochelle, N.Y., shortly after the turn of the last century. She also is the heroic heart of the story, changing and growing as she perceives injustices small and large — visited on her by her husband, and on Coalhouse by just about the whole world.
The third of these valiant figures is Tateh, the timid Russian-Jewish immigrant who brings his little girl to the savage wilds of New York, played with initial restraint by Andrew Philpot. Those who have read Doctorow’s book, or seen the film version, know Tateh’s magnificent transformation, from cowed immigrant to a genuine Hollywood mogul, rejoicing in his American career. It’s worth the price of admission just to see Philpot’s emergence.
Because Doctorow’s novel spills over with characters both fictional and historically real, the musical has too many fine performances to credit them all in this space. Some who must be mentioned: Father, played on Saturday by Billy Breed, kindly but oblivious to the changes around him; Younger Brother, the budding revolutionary portrayed by the always energetic Michael Jenkinson; Little Boy (Mother and Father’s son), played by Michael White, who is still a child but is also a polished actor; Sarah, Coalhouse’s one true love, acted and sung by the beguiling Mekia Cox; Anarchist Emma Goldman, stirring and fearless, played by Bree Murphy; and Evelyn Nesbit, the “Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” who caused a sensational society scandal, jealousy and a murder. She is played by the petite, beautiful Keira O’Neil, fetching in a corset and black stockings and not much else.
Mark Booher directed Ragtime, which was adapted by playwright Terence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
Ragtime plays through Aug. 24 at Solvang’s open-air venue. It’s a charming theater. At night it can become semi-Arctic. Most audience members bring coats, cushions and blankets, which can also be rented. Tickets are available at www.pcpa.org.
Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.