E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime” is a melting pot of the early 20th century, targeting the point at which white America started to become white, black, and immigrant America. Milos Forman’s 1981 film “Ragtime” takes its own slant, playing up the celebrated love triangle of Stanford White, Evelyn Nesbit, and Harry K. Thaw and not bothering to send Father off with Admiral Peary to the North Pole.
What’s missing from both book and movie is the music implied by the title. Yes, Randy Newman deserved the Oscar nomination he received for his film score, but it’s “Ragtime: The Musical” that kicks up its heels, and in the Fiddlehead Theatre Company production that’s playing at the Strand Theatre, it kicks them high, wide, and very handsome.
This 1996 effort, with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, and music by Stephen Flaherty, lacks the complexity of character and the dark vision of the movie. But it clarifies the interactions among Doctorow’s three elements: rich white family — Father, Mother, their Little Boy, Grandfather, and Younger Brother (Mother’s) — in New Rochelle; accomplished black musician Coalhouse Walker and Sarah, the mother of his son, in Harlem; and Latvian Jewish immigrant Tateh and his Little Girl on the boat to Ellis Island. At the Strand, choreographer Anne McAlexander has the three groups introduce themselves by whirling around one another, as if they were the sides of an equilateral triangle and America were in the middle.
Anchoring the incessant movement of the 42-member cast is Janie E. Howland’s imaginative set, whose backdrop is dominated by the head of the Statue of Liberty. That’s appropriate for a production undertaken in collaboration with the American Civil Liberties Union, but Howland zeroes in on the spiky rays of Lady Liberty’s diadem, which look more threatening than welcoming. The action takes place under a pair of metallic arches; both sides of the set are festooned with period photos, posters, and magazine covers. Howland suggests New Rochelle with a trellised gateway and screen door that descend on cue; Harlem is a clothesline strung with washing. Jennifer Tremblay’s period costumes are sumptuous, with a wide array of ladies’ hats, and some eye-popping three-piece tattersall (which Ahrens rhymes with “tennis ball”) suits. The 16-piece orchestra led by Matthew Stern is stellar.
Fiddlehead founder and director Meg Fofonoff can take credit for the uniformly excellent acting and singing of a cast that boasts just four Equity members. Greg Balla’s Father and Michael S. Dunavant’s Younger Brother could be less callow in their thankless roles as the cardboard reactionary and the cardboard revolutionary. But Damian Norfleet brings a full range of emotions to Coalhouse Walker, and he matches well with a conflicted Tia DeShazor as his Sarah. Shonna Cirone and Adam Shapiro likewise make sense of the improbably coupled Mother and Tateh, she winsome and determined, he a big affectionate teddy bear.
There’s outstanding support from June Baboian as a feisty, Slavic-accented Emma Goldman, McCaela Donovan as a seductive Evelyn Nesbit on her red velvet swing, and Ron A. Cook as the Grandfather who regales the audience with one-liners. Alec Shiman and Julia DeLuzio are irrepressibly spontaneous as Mother’s Little Boy and Tateh’s Little Girl, and upstaged only by the appearance, at the very end, of tiny Lester John Velasquez as Coalhouse Walker III.
One area in which this “Ragtime” could improve is miking: Friday night it was erratic, and too many important thoughts got lost. It was also odd not to see Coalhouse’s snazzy Model T Ford back out into the wings when his men use it to escape from the Morgan Library. Maybe that’s because the production’s “Wheels of a Dream” aren’t geared to going in reverse.