For pageantry is “Ragtime’s” brand. And Gardiner masters the form here, casting the parts, fictional and real, as emblematic cogs in an evolutionary demographic machine. The touchstone characters, all sensationally realized — Teal Wicks as a White patrician undergoing a feminist awakening; Bobby Smith as a Jewish immigrant with a gift for entrepreneurship; Awa Sal Secka as a Black woman of infinite devotion — animate those cogs hearteningly.
Terrence McNally’s book has the heaviest lift in “Ragtime,” streamlining the dizzying threads of Doctorow’s novel and doing justice to three commingled plots: the stories of Wicks, as Mother, in a wealthy New Rochelle, N.Y., family; Smith’s Tateh and daughter the Little Girl (Emerson Holt Lacayo, alternating with Avery Laina Harris); and Secka’s doomed Sarah and her proud beau, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (a resolute and dignified Nkrumah Gatling).
On top of that, the script has to account for the myriad historical figures who anchor us in a moment of racial, cultural and industrial reckoning: Booker T. Washington (Tobias A. Young), Harry Houdini (Edward L. Simon) and Henry Ford (Douglas Ullman Jr.) among them. At times, though, the musical is hamstrung by its singing-textbook demands. Unlike, say, “Assassins,” by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman, which swings for the sardonic fences, with amusingly disturbed portraits of America’s president-killers, “Ragtime” is a more earnest heritage project: It rarely portrays anyone, or tells us anything, we don’t already know.
Still, Gardiner marshals it all in style — a style that reminds us that concert staging has become a major template for big, expensive musicals. As with the revivals series minted by Encores in New York and Broadway Center Stage at the Kennedy Center, “Ragtime” is devised to spartan specifications, with the band as a prominent component of the scenery. Set designer Lee Savage perches Kalbfleisch and company on a wide platform above the sparsely furnished stage, in front of a bank of arched windows. It’s as if we’ve gathered for a recital by a chamber orchestra in Teddy Roosevelt’s time. (The sumptuous period costumes by Erik Teague are an exception to the spare aesthetic.)
The “new music” that the characters sing about refers to the syncopated rags that were all the rage, created by Black composers like Coalhouse, and more generally to the ethnic minorities claiming their place in the social fabric. It’s their “new” musical energy that gives the show its oomph, as we’re swept up in Ahrens and Flaherty’s sweet airs and power anthems. How do you not respond with blood-pumping huzzahs to Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son” or Coalhouse’s “Wheels of a Dream” or Mother’s “Back to Before”?
The groundwork is laid in “Ragtime,” too, for the uglier currents that persist in this nation, especially as dramatized in the brutal racism confronted by Sarah and Coalhouse. Ford’s Model T, the product that drove the world into the American century, is cast as a tragic symbol here, as thugs take out their hatred on the gleaming evidence of Coalhouse’s success. You cannot help but think of what tears this country apart to this day.
The musical’s ironic subtext is that all these disparate people are here, claiming ownership of the American space, compelled by law and proximity to make of it one cohesive nation. The notion is inherent in choreographer Ashleigh King’s musical staging, particularly in the gorgeous opening number, when members of the competing classes and ethnicities introduce themselves, singing to one another, and to us.
Gardiner has made space, too, for other lovely turns: Matthew Lamb is a delight as the Little Boy, an upper-crust kid with a common touch and a weird clairvoyant inkling of impending war. (“Warn the duke!” he repeatedly cries to bewildered grown-ups, only vaguely aware of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.) Maria Rizzo plays Evelyn Nesbit with a winking variety of prescience: A showgirl at the center of a notorious scandal of the time, her tease of an Evelyn foretells an era of celebrities famous for being famous. Dani Stoller’s Emma Goldman, a socialist firebrand, is memorable, too, for underlining the commonality of struggle for working classes of every color.
One’s heart beats most fervently, though, for Wicks, Smith and Secka. Each transcends the stock character prescriptions and achieves a “Ragtime” ideal: There’s real life and that vivacious new music coursing through their veins, helping us to understand what America was — and is.
Ragtime, music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; choreography, Ashleigh King; set, Lee Savage; costumes, Erik Teague; lighting, Tyler Micoleau; sound, Eric Norris. With Bill English, Lawrence Redmond, Jake Loewenthal, Todd Scofield, Gregory Twomey, Jonathan Keith, Maxwell Kwadjo Talbert. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Jan. 7 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.