Don't Wait to See RAGTIME at the Strand Theatre
Don't tell your grandmother, but it's time to head back to the old country of Dorchester to catch the Fiddlehead Theatre Company's excellent new production of Ragtime: The Musical now playing at The Strand Theatre. The City of Boston is investing in reinvigorating this storied old theater as a center for arts and culture in the city, particularly for the communities of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.
Ragtime is a particularly poignant show for the occasion, offering an epic story from the turn of the previous century, just prior to the opening of the Strand itself. With its focus on a segregated society of WASPs, African-Americans, and Jewish immigrants in New Rochelle, N.Y. — and what happens when those groups interact with each other — Ragtime could be the story of the history of Dorchester itself. But the musical, based on the novel by E. L. Doctorow, spins a tale of social evolution and personal assimilation, societal injustice and individual kindness, which explains why this production is sponsored by the ACLU. In the hands of playwright Terrance McNally, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and composer Stephen Flaherty, though, Ragtime never feels preachy or didactic. It's simply a great evening of theater.
You know you're in for something special from the opening number, which skillfully introduces not only 15 characters, but also the social dynamics at play among the three groups, made vivid through Anne McAlexander's choreography and Jennifer Tremblay's costumes. Meg Fofonoff's direction keeps the story moving at a pace that belies the show's three-hour length, and with a couple of brief exceptions in the second act, keeps the various plotlines clear. The 16-piece orchestra under the baton of Matt Stern is thrilling.
If I'm hesitant to single out any of the performers, it's only because of the excellence across the board. Damian Norfleet's rich baritone makes it easy to see why anyone would fall in love with his Coalhouse Walker Jr., making his eventual downfall all the more upsetting. Adam Shapiro as Tateh perfectly balances the pain of a single father repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to find a better life for this daughter with a comedic touch that keeps things from becoming too heavy. Shonna Cirone as Mother presents an incredible transformation over the course of the show, from a buttoned-up housewife at first to a powerhouse matriarch by the time she delivers the final anthem, "Back to Before."
"Back to Before" may be Mother's final anthem, but it's not Ragtime's, and therein lies one of the few problems with the show. The score, while beautifully reminiscent of the best Americana music, is overstuffed with anthems, from "Wheels of a Dream" to "'Til We Reach That Day" to "Make Them Hear You." While each song is worthy, all that declaration of purpose gets exhausting. Still, each carries an important message that resonates today, whether it's about the pursuit of justice, the direction of progress, or the power of the American Dream. This is a show that will leave you not only humming the songs; you'll also be discussing their messages. At least you will once you wipe the tears away.
On second thought, Ragtime may be the perfect reason to grab your grandparents and bring them back to the part of town they likely haven't visited since their families fled to the suburbs in the fifties. Have them show you where they used to live and which churches used to be synagogues, and then after the show, talk about the issues raised by the performance and what we can do about them today.
RAGTIME runs at Dorchester’s historic Strand Theater, 543 Columbia Road in Boston, through October 7, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and Thursday, October 4, at 7:30 p.m. Ticket prices: $45-Orchestra, $39-Mezzanine, $35-Balcony, $32-Seniors and Children, $25-Students. For tickets or more information, please call 866-811-4111 or visit www.fiddleheadtheatre.com. For more information and group sales (10 or more), please call Show of The Month at 617-338-1111.
Photo of Adam Shapiro as Tateh and Julia Deluzio as his daughter by Matt McKee Photography.