In the wake of the George Floyd police murder and the reactions that followed, the Ahrens & Flaherty anthem “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime” was stuck in my head like a mantra. It was an inspiring earworm as it expressed what so many of us were feeling at the time. The early twentieth-century fictional Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker in E.L. Doctorow’s novel—also the centerpiece of the musical—is a powerful symbol of racial injustice.
Of course, the entire Stephen Flaherty score (with Lynn Ahrens lyrics and book by Terrence McNally) is an epic, kaleidoscopic and introspective journey back to early twentieth-century America.
Doctorow wrote the 1975 novel as a pre-bicentennial nostalgia memoir; the 1996 musical became a pre-millennial look back over our shoulder. (It is worth noting that Doctorow would not allow his novel to become a musical without maintaining creative control over the project.) And yet it is astonishing how contemporary it still feels further into another century than the time period portrayed in the last century. As the new Metropolis Performing Arts Centre production demonstrated at its Saturday night opening, it’s as if “Ragtime” were ripped right out of today’s headlines.
The opening, with its introduction of three families, was slower and more stilted than usual, the syncopation of the music enduring a competition between a pianist trying to hold rhythm versus a drummer who dragged. The nine-piece orchestra often had a single player or two representing an entire section with varying results.
Director Jerrell L. Henderson has, luckily, assembled such a strong cast that when no less than two cast members were unable to continue the show after Act I Saturday night, covers continued the performance without missing a beat, albeit after a longer-than-usual intermission.
There was a tendency for some of the cast to oversing, not helped by the fact that all solo singers were needlessly overmiked although slightly less so in Act II.
Although a non-Equity cast, there is plenty of heart and the magic of the show itself remained the North Star throughout.
Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 West Campbell Street, Arlington Heights, metropolisarts.com. Through June 10.