“Make them hear you,” goes the climactic chorus in the musical “Ragtime,” and the new production at Ford’s Theatre stirringly delivers on the kaleidoscopic show’s cries for justice. The setting is 1906, but the issues ring true throughout the 1998 musical’s crusading score.
Racial strife? Check, as the ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. — played by a splendid Kevin McAllister, whose sunny disposition gradually turns to cold fury — refuses to give in as white supremacists trash his shiny Model T.
Immigration friction? Check, as the European Jew named Tateh (an anxiety-riddled Jonathan Atkinson) struggles to sell his handcrafted silhouette art on the streets of New York to support his young daughter. (The immigration angle felt particularly acute during Wednesday’s opening as President Trump’s controversial ban was in court again.)
Whites resentful at the surge of change? Check, as the generically named Father (a superbly baffled James Konicek) lamely clings to old ideas of order, while the wide-eyed Mother (the radiant Tracy Lynn Olivera) searchingly leads the forward-thinking tune “New Music.”
Far from being old hat, “Ragtime” may need to reappear in Washington with each new administration. “The country is experiencing an acutely stressful testing of both its resolve and its way of doing business,” Peter Marks wrote of the April 2009 Kennedy Center version that quickly transferred to Broadway, adding, “A musical tracing the nation’s core values strikes an even more resonant chord.”
As its cast of two dozen swarms up and down a three-story set layered with class implications, Peter Flynn’s production utilizes the full volume of the large Ford’s stage to capture the immensity of the show and its themes. Henry Ford (John Leslie Wolf) stands on the top level of Milagros Ponce de León’s verdigris-colored scaffold structure, a corporate colossus lording it over the rabble. The socialist-anarchist Emma Goldman (Rayanne Gonzales) gets wheeled around on one of two tall mobile-stair units, inciting a combustible crowd with her fiery rhetoric.
Musically, too, this “Ragtime” comes at you with a wallop. Music director Christopher Youstra’s nine-piece orchestra occupies the set’s second level, pumping out lilting piano-clarinet-trombone ragtime melodies that often escalate to mighty anthems. The Stephen Flaherty score (with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) ripples with lovely, soft colors humanizing the characters, yet — and here’s the nagging mark against the show, and against the megamusical epoch it comes from — it also has a tendency to strain for epic effect. Flynn’s production trips on this weakness too often, especially early on. The incessant bustle and full-throated choral approach can wear you out.
It truly hits goosebump territory, though, when McAllister’s patient, debonair Coalhouse finally gets through to the elusive mother of his baby, Sarah. As Sarah descends from the attic where Mother has taken her in (while Father is away, of course), Nova Y. Payton joins McAllister for a duet that gives the evening its first thrilling moment. Payton, the recent centerpiece of “Caroline, or Change” at Round House Theatre, easily handles Sarah’s big brooding song to her baby, “Your Daddy’s Son,” and she partners touchingly with McAllister’s beaming Coalhouse.
Ford’s keeps demonstrating a knack for putting local actors into the right big roles, and as a composed, powerful Coalhouse, McAllister emerges as the soul of the show. His rich baritone is equal to the jaunty “Gettin’ Ready Rag,” the sweetness of “Sarah Brown Eyes” and the soaring tragic notes the dismal plot heaps on Coalhouse. Olivera, too, carries on from the rewarding leading work she did last year at Ford’s in “110 in the Shade” (alongside a fine McAllister). As the evolving Mother, she appealingly embodies the grace of the story, bringing exceptional thought to the power ballad “Back to Before.”
This “Ragtime” doesn’t yet have the consistent, steady confidence that Marcia Milgrom Dodge achieved with her Kennedy Center version; it takes a while for the vibrant characters of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel to become genuinely reflective as circumstances change. Little things tend to get steamrolled: the comically foul ballpark language of “What a Game,” for instance, in which the spittin’, swearin’ punchlines (subverting Father’s nostalgic hope for an innocent day out with his young son) get lost in the hectic ensemble performance.
Yet Doctorow’s gripping plot, efficiently adapted by playwright Terrence McNally, still does its work. The crisis Coalhouse sets in motion with his righteous vigilante movement generates plenty of suspense as the show crests to a violent climax. Likewise, this production’s virtues end up substantially outweighing its flaws. McAllister binds it, and the swelling choral odes at the end of both acts are irresistible as the tense three-part weave of blacks and whites and immigrants — each group sharply costumed with subtle but noticeable team colors by Wade Laboissonierre — vividly dramatizes the country’s ever-hopeful, still unsettled story.
Ragtime, book by Terrence McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed by Peter Flynn. Choreography, Michael Bobbitt; lights, Rui Rita; sound design, David Budries; projections, Clint Allen. With Christopher Bloch, Ryan Burke, Felicia Curry, Maria Egler, Ashleigh King, Eben K. Logan, Sean-Maurice Lynch, Gregory Maheu, Justine “Icy” Moral, Christopher Mueller, Ines Nassara, Rayshun LaMarr Purefoy, Jefferson A. Russell, Stephen F. Schmidt, Karen Vincent, Tobias Young and Elan Zafir. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through May 20 at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10th St. NW. Tickets: $20-$73. Call 888-616-0270 or visit fords.org.