The sprawling 1998 musical adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s bestselling historical novel “Ragtime” is given unexpected freshness and clarity in Stafford Arima’s scaled-back production, first staged in London in 2003. Despite the show’s panoramic nature, the spare, subtly focused approach and clean, functional set design have made the mix of historical and fictional characters more accessible. A splendid cast also helps make this flavorful show a strong closing act to Paper Mill Playhouse’s inaugural season under new president-CEO Michael Gennaro.
Playwright Terrence McNally, along with composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens, contributed minor adjustments to the original script and score, and while the changes are not obvious, the show appears more intimate and palatable. The settling rhythm of a slow rag is never far away, giving the musical its infectious period allure to illustrate three interwoven tales. The destinies of a WASPy New Rochelle family, a Latvian Jewish immigrant and his daughter and an unjustly victimized black piano player merge in an allegorical tale of epic sweep, most of which is related in song.
Performances are first-rate, topped by the compelling work of Quentin Earl Darrington as flashy Harlem pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. Boldly authoritative, he frames the score’s most melodic and familiar song, “Wheels of a Dream,” with soaring prophetic power. Rachel York — who stepped into the role of Mother just a few weeks before opening — is a radiant parental figure, evolving steadily as she finds a more independent voice; the actress triumphs with the melancholy, reflective “Back to Before.”
In a gently appealing perf as Coalhouse’s doomed sweetheart, Sarah, Kenita R. Miller offers the confessional lullaby “Your Daddy’s Son.” Neal Benari invests humor and heart into the role of Tateh, the penniless immigrant Jew who becomes a pioneer in the film industry.
There are token appearances by noted personalities from the early days of the 20th century: Emma Goldman (Debra Cardona), Booker T. Washington (Justin Lee Miller), Henry Ford (Greg Roderick), J.P. Morgan (Tom Gamblin) and Harry Houdini (Matthew Scott), who even gets a fleeting moment to exhibit his famous straight-jacket escape. Evelyn Nesbit, fetchingly realized by Betsy Wolfe, gets her own saucy musical turn in “The Crime of the Century.”
Liza Gennaro’s choreography of “The Gettin’ Ready Rag” and a summery stroll on the boardwalk at Atlantic City is infused with the kind of tantalizing flintiness one might find in an old Fox musical with Betty Grable. The choral sequences are realized with great warmth and passion.
This staging makes the musical more available to regional and non-pro productions. Its minimalist set by Robert Jones — who also designed the picture-pretty costumes — incorporates 14 frosted-glass panels to serve as revolving doors, topped by a slanted scrim and a catwalk. Two straight-back chairs serve as Coalhouse’s treasured Model-T Ford, while the girl in the red velvet swing doesn’t even get a swing to perch upon. Fittingly, the only real piece of furniture onstage is the piano that generates the ragtime motif.
The downsized set may have lifted a great weight from the Tony-winning musical, a profoundly pleasant rediscovery that has lost none of its heart, its passion or its glorious musical resonance.