When Ragtime first premiered on Broadway in 1998, the producers tried to use spectacle to hide the deficiencies in the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's novel. Audiences presumably would be so overwhelmed by the fireworks and working Model-T Ford that they wouldn't care that the show tried to stuff so much into a single experience.
Park Square's production doesn't have the budget for a working Model T to tool around onstage. Instead, they make do with a simple two-dimensional frame—pushed along on bicycle wheels—to represent the vehicle. The same goes from stem to stern of the production, which uses the power of suggestion to bring turn-of-the-20th-century America to life.
With the spectacle toned down, the characters have a chance to take center stage, and the show takes on a life that the massive Broadway production could never manage. The flaws are still there, especially in a second act that loses the central thread of the story for long stretches, but it's easier to get swept along with this production.
RagtimePark Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul Through February 19; $35-$68651.291.7005
Like Doctorow's book, the musical takes a panoramic view of life in America circa 1906, merging the lives of our fictional heroes with historical figures and events. There are three main strains that eventually intersect. One deals with a well-to-do white family where the patriarch is so confident of his place in the world that he takes off for an expedition to the North Pole at the beginning of the play. He leaves behind the headstrong Mother to watch the family and business, and the second storyline joins in when she finds a newborn black child abandoned in her garden.
She takes in the child and the mother, Sarah. Eventually the father, musician Coalhouse Walker Jr., enters the picture, slowly working his way into the rhythm of the family. This doesn't go unnoticed in New Rochelle, nor does his fancy Model T.
Playing alongside this is the story of Tateh and his daughter, brand-new immigrants to the United States trying to build a new life. It's an important story to explore, but one that gets overwhelmed onstage by the tragic turn of Coalhouse and Sarah's story. A confrontation with the volunteers at the New Rochelle fire department leaves the Model T in ruins. Coalhouse searches for justice, but is blocked at every turn. Sarah is killed trying to help, and Coalhouse—driven mad by grief and rage—begins a bloody campaign of arson and murder.
At which point the musical takes us to a baseball game.
After building and building during the first act, Ragtime starts to collapse under the weight of its narrative threads, attempting to give every character equal time when the story is screaming for us to follow Coalhouse. Book writer Terrance McNally and lyricist Lynn Aherns do a fine job of bringing Doctorow's novel to life on the stage, but even after being revised to its current form, the play takes a lot of time away from the characters we really want to follow.
It's almost by sheer force of will that the company takes us through the likes of "What a Game" or the family's relocation to Atlantic City, which gets several pace-eating songs of its own. There is a trio of terrific performances at the top of the bill, as Christina Baldwin (as Mother), Dieter Bierbrauer (as Tateh), and Harry Waters Jr. (as Coalhouse) build magnificent, complex, and moving characters. Tateh may exist at the outskirts of the main story, but his journey is compelling, and Bierbrauer makes him a full person. The same goes for Waters, who balances the two sides of his character wonderfully, making Coalhouse a character we can understand even after he has done terrible things.
It's Baldwin, however, who captures every scene she's in. Steely without being cold, Mother is a character asserting her independence for the first time. Baldwin makes these moments completely believable. Having an astounding voice doesn't hurt, which gives songs like "What Kind of Woman" and "Back to Before" more intensity than the actual solo-by-numbers music provided by composer Stephen Flaherty.
Director Gary Gisselman and set designer Rick Polenek (aided by video projections by Todd Edwards) employ a less-is-more approach, letting the characters tell the story without many distractions. This not only keeps the pace mostly tight—important for a dense show like this—but gives the actors a real chance to define and explore their characters without being upstaged by a working Model T.