It can be illuminating to track the fortunes of a musical or a play over time, gauging which ones have staying power as measured by the frequency of Broadway revivals or regional theater performances.
By that standard — but not only that — “Ragtime’’ has to be seen as one of the most consequential musicals of the last few decades.
While watching Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University’s stirring production — directed by Nick Vargas and highlighted by Anthony Pires, Jr.’s gripping portrayal of the grievously wronged and vengeful Coalhouse Walker, Jr. — you are struck by how directly and acutely “Ragtime’’ speaks to our time.
Although it’s a 1998 musical based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel and is set in the early years of the 20th century, “Ragtime’’ feels as if it could have been created in reaction to our current bleak moment, what with its focus on racism, xenophobia, economic inequality, the challenges immigrants face in gaining a foothold in a new land, and an overarching sense of the contradictions embedded within our national experiment. Two decades before “Hamilton,’’ the musical adaptation of “Ragtime’’ found vitality and contemporary resonance in stories forged from history, albeit with a blend of fictional characters and real-life personages.
Even as a purely theatrical matter, the Wheelock production drives home how forcefully “Ragtime’’ builds from strength to strength. First and foremost is the career-peak score by Stephen Flaherty (music) and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics), a thing of beauty despite occasional lapses into bombast as it ranges from soaring to searing to sorrowful while providing at least one memorable solo for each major character. Right from the opening number, Ahrens and Flaherty deftly employ ragtime itself (“A strange insistent music/ Putting out heat/ Picking up steam’’) as a correlative for “an era exploding/ A century spinning.’’
Then there is the book by Terrence McNally, a major playwright who put his well-honed skills to work in devising a coherent narrative that balances multiple entwined story lines while not shortchanging the vivid social panorama, the political passion, or the personal intimacy of Doctorow’s novel.
Whether fictional or real, everyone in “Ragtime’’ is pursuing some version of the American dream. But a central point of both the novel and the musical is that the course and outcome of those pursuits vary hugely depending on race and class.
At one pole of experience stands a prosperous white New Rochelle, N.Y., family that includes change-resistant Father (Peter Adams); restless and idealistic Mother (Lisa Yuen); turbulent, cause-seeking Younger Brother (Jonathan Acorn); eerily prophetic Little Boy (Ben Choi-Harris), and grumpy Grandfather (Robert Saoud). On a parallel trajectory a Jewish immigrant from Latvia named Tateh (a nimbly expressive Tony Castellanos) is journeying to and through America with his young daughter, played by Marissa Simeqi. Tateh has to endure the worst of industrial exploitation in his adopted country before ultimately breaking through to success in the new medium of film.
And finally, there is an African-American couple, Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker, Jr. and Sarah (Pier Lamia Porter), newly reconciled after Sarah has given birth to their child. Porter quietly conveys Sarah’s inwardness and wounded quality, culminating in her shattering rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son.’’ When Coalhouse’s prized automobile is defaced by bigoted firefighters, it sets in motion events that lead to a tragic loss. Pires turns “Coalhouse’s Soliloquy’’ into a harrowing compound of fury and grief, and Coalhouse’s quest for revenge spirals further and further out of control. Along the way, the teeming tapestry of “Ragtime’’ makes room for the real-life likes of Booker T. Washington (Davron Monroe), Emma Goldman (Nicole Paloma Sarro), Harry Houdini (Brad Foster Reinking), and Evelyn Nesbit (Tara Deieso).
“Ragtime’’ is not a perfect musical, and this is not a perfect production. The musical’s narrative momentum slackens a bit in Act 2 , and there are a couple of sluggish or choppy scene transitions. Not every cast member sufficiently projects from the farther reaches of the spacious Wheelock stage. Yuen sings beautifully as Mother, but there is another layer to the character that she doesn’t quite plumb. Much the same is true of Adams, as Father.
For all its built-in structural solidity, “Ragtime’’ leaves open considerable interpretive space for a director (perhaps another explanation for its continuing popularity). Some of Vargas’s staging strains to telegraph a message to the audience, such as the protester in one scene who carries a sign that reads: “Immigration: It’s the American way.’’
But overall this “Ragtime’’ delivers on the musical’s emotional impact in big ways and small. One resonant gesture occurs late in Act 2, when Yuen, as Mother, performs “Back to Before,’’ a wife’s declaration to her husband that she has awakened from “the days when I let you make all my choices’’ and an assertion that “We can never go back to before.’’ While Yuen sings, the female members of the ensemble are arranged in a semicircle behind the orchestra section, holding candles, creating a tableau of solidarity. It is as if Mother is singing to and for them.
The performance of “Ragtime’’ I saw was a morning matinee attended by seventh-graders from Boston Latin School and pupils of roughly the same age from The Rivers School in Weston. They watched raptly throughout — these students could give some adult theater patrons a lesson in how to behave during a performance — and then at the end the youngsters responded with a standing ovation whose fervor underscored something that becomes clearer year after year: There will always be an audience for “Ragtime.’’
Book by Terrence McNally. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow. Directed by Nick Vargas. Presented by Wheelock Family Theatre at Boston University, through Feb. 17. Tickets $20-$40, 617-353-3001, www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org