Sometimes a theater’s status can change with just one production. The Justice Theater Project’s mission of calling attention to the marginalized and oppressed has often been more admirable in its intentions than in its end product. But its staging of “Ragtime” establishes a new level of excellence that will be the company’s benchmark from now on.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ 1998 Broadway musical is a sprawling epic about America at the turn of the 20th century when the worlds of the sheltered rich, African-Americans and European immigrants came into conflict. With more than 40 cast members, a wide range of period costuming, numerous changes of scene and precise choreographic and choral requirements, “Ragtime” would tax the most professional of theaters.
Thus it’s all the more remarkable that director Deb Royals stages the piece so satisfactorily within the limitations of a church recreation hall and the company’s minimal resources. The production’s commitment and polish more than make up for a few compromises and deficiencies.
Four lead roles are double cast. On Saturday, Allen Brown, as Harlem piano player Coalhouse Walker, and Connie McCoy Rogers, as Sarah, the mother of his child, made warm, sympathetic characters, their several duets the highlights of the show. Representing the upper class, Jason Hassell’s Father was appropriately at sea over the changes in his world, while Mary Kathryn Walston’s Mother astutely demonstrated what happens when change is embraced.
Coty Cockrell made immigrant Tateh a likable entrepreneur, determined to carve out a better life. Ian Finley brought moving obsession to Mother’s Younger Brother, finding purpose in fueling rebellion. Among the script’s many historical figures, Alison Lawrence’s fierce Emma Goldman, Jade Arnold’s majestic Booker T. Washington and Morgan Parpan’s Kewpie-doll Evelyn Nesbit stood out.
Lex von Blommestein’s massive unit set allowed easy scene changes, but the awkward steps and landings slowed crossings and exits. His lighting design too often left major characters in shadow. Music director Carolyn Colquitt had every cast member impressively prepared, but the piped-in, synthesized musical accompaniment frequently covered the un-miked voices.
But aided by Deb Cox and David Serxner’s fine costuming and Carrie Santiago and Aya Wallace’s vibrant choreography, the joyful and poignant elements of “Ragtime” came vividly to life, fulfilling the company’s mission commendably.