CHATHAM — In her program bio, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, who plays Mother in Mac-Haydn’s stunning production of “Ragtime,” says, “[I hope] the topics of this show stay in your hearts and in your conversations beyond the theater doors.”
Indeed. Adapted from E.L. Doctorow’s novel, this 1998 musical, with a book by Terrance McNally, music by Stephen Flaherty, and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, satisfies by being an entertainment of ideas, with a seductive score that carries us on a wave of profound emotion from beginning to end.
The prologue quickly establishes the mood. Choreographer Sebastiani Romagnolo fills the stage and the aisles with three groups of early 20th-century Americans — middle-class whites, Jewish immigrants, and African Americans — each of whom sings of its dreams: the status quo, a new life of opportunity, and the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, respectively, thus presaging some of the struggles still claiming our national attention.
The larger story and themes are revealed through the experiences of fictional and historical characters. Mother’s comfortable New Rochelle existence is interrupted by two events: the departure of her husband, Father (Steve Hassmer), on a journey to the North Pole with Admiral Peary; and her discovery of an African American baby in her backyard.
In addition, her subsequent encounter with immigrant Tateh (Gabe Belyeu) helps to make her the linchpin among the groups as she reevaluates her role as a woman in a male-dominated world and sees injustice through the eyes of the baby’s mother, Sarah (Maya Cuevas), and father, musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Tyrell Reggins).
Her brother (Kylan Ross) is similarly affected, transformed from a privileged young man chiefly interested in the charms of celebrity Evelyn Nesbit (Sarah Kawalek) to a firebrand inspired by the radical Emma Goldman (Julie Galorenzo).
The collisions of these groups lead to disaster for Sarah and Coalhouse, but the final stage picture of what one American family might look like is theatrically satisfying, given the journey we’ve just been on, and completely hopeful.
Director John Saunders’ Mac-Haydn savvy is everywhere on display. The cast is peopled with young talent from various BFA and MFA programs; the technical aspects of the show — like Jimm Halliday’s costumes and Andrew Gmoser’s lighting — are first-rate; and David Maglione’s musical direction and pit band contributions are spot-on.
Superb, too, are the leads and the hard-working ensemble. Belyeu (a welcome MH mainstay), Cuevas, Hassmer, Galorenzo, Kawalek, and Ross score with finely etched characterizations and powerful vocals.
A nod, too, to Andrew Burton Kelly as Harry Houdini, Paxton Brownell as young Edgar, and Alecsys Proctor-Turner, whose “Till We Reach That Day” brings Act I to a shattering close.
Reggins’ interpretation of Coalhouse feels a bit unfocused, with line readings that don’t get into the nooks and crannies of the character, but his singing is outstanding. Rhodes-Devey takes the full measure of this interesting and interested woman, with subtle looks and gestures and a voice that matches the demands of each song. Lovely work.
Why the title? It refers, of course, to the “new music” of the period, with African-American origins. But it’s a metaphor, too, for the social changes coming to America. Ragtime’s rhythms are syncopated, maybe unfamiliar and difficult, but is it a music most of us can master with practice? That’s what conversation in a democracy is about, suggests Rhodes-Devey.
WHERE: The Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 NY 203, Chatham
WHEN: Through Aug. 4
HOW MUCH: Adults, $39.50-$36.50; children under 12, $15
MORE INFO: 518-392-9292, or machaydntheatre.org