Ragtime at Theater Works in Peoria Is Close to Perfect

An old friend who knows theater phoned me last week. "I've just seen the most perfect production of Ragtime," she said. "At Theater Works. You should go!"

Oh, dear, I thought. A community theater production of Ragtime. No.

But I went — fortunately. This well-crafted production of Terrence McNally's musical about the reshaping of America in the early 20th century surprised me with its more ample qualities: a live orchestra, rather than the prerecorded tracks that many smaller companies use these days, some innovative choreography from director Phillip Fazio, and a harmonious ensemble cast with a couple of real standouts.

Adapted from E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, Ragtime offers a panoramic sweep of America just after the turn of the last century. Its original Broadway production, subsequent road companies, and a later New York remount were all of mammoth scale, with vintage automobiles and a full-size locomotive dwarfing the stage and often trumping its performers and its lovely score. Its current publication, known officially as Ragtime Version 2, is a pared-down, less bombastic edition that allows its players to shine.

The tragic drama behind Ragtime's stories seem apocryphal but, are, for the most part, true. Its story of America is told by three families: Father (Matt Zimmerer), Mother (Sarah Wolter), Mother's Younger Brother (local favorite John Haubner), and her Little Boy (an engaging Emilio Cress) whose complacent life in New Rochelle, New York, is upturned when Mother finds an abandoned black baby in her garden. The infant's mother is an unmarried maid named Sarah (Krystal Pope); his father, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Miguel Jackson, in a star turn), is a Harlem piano player whose presence is a challenge to both families. Both cross paths with Tateh (Tony Bolsser) and his daughter (Morgan Goldberg), Russian immigrants who come here to better themselves. Wedged between their stories are nonstop references to game-changing historical figures: showgirl Evelyn Nesbit; radical Emma Goldman; industry tycoon Henry Ford.

Both high-minded and elegantly somber, the music and lyrics are never preachy about America's less-glorious early days. And although that live orchestra sounded sometimes sluggish, it was perhaps because someone — maybe musical director Steve Hilderbrand — has adapted the original Broadway arrangements, written for belters like Audra McDonald, who originated the role of Sarah, for more subtle singers.

Fazio's production commences neatly but really gets going about halfway through Act One, when Father returns home from a long journey to discover black people living — and playing ragtime music — in his home. This Ragtime begins then, when Wolter confronts Zimmerer in a stunning non-musical moment filled with, as Doctorow wrote in his novel, "texture, moods, character, despair."

From there, it's all uphill for this Ragtime, which crosses that usually uncrossable bridge between history lesson and musical theater, leaving us well entertained and perhaps even a little enlightened.