Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre finds a voice in this nostalgic musical.

The MET's Ragtime: minimal sets, maximum feeling 

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre finds a voice in this nostalgic musical.

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Photo by Manon Halliburton

Musical-theater geeks, start your engines. The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre's production of Ragtime has everything you want from a big show: lavish lighting and costumes, powerhouse performances, and emotional songs that swell to the top of the MET's intimate space.

Ragtime follows three sets of characters whose storylines intersect in early 20th-century America, what the show calls "an era of something beginning." An affluent white couple in New Rochelle, New York, finds a black infant abandoned in their garden. A passionate Harlem pianist, Coalhouse Walker Jr., searches for his love, Sarah, and for justice in a time of racial turmoil. A Latvian Jew, Tateh, and his daughter pursue the fabled American dream.

The musical features a strong book by Tony Award–winner Terrence McNally. The playwright's 1997 Corpus Christi sparked a slew of controversy and backlash, but Ragtime, for all its emotional power, is anything but edgy. It hums with unwavering optimism and unabashed Broadway classicism, from its sweeping, sentimental music to a "Where are they now?" epilogue that leaves no storyline untied.

The MET's new production taps into that upbeat spirit with plenty of nostalgia. Costume designer Shannon Smith-Regnier, especially, has captured the look and feel of the age, clothing the production's large ensemble through several detailed, period-specific changes. Snow-white gowns and crisp suits for the New Rochelle family contrast the more casual styles and varied patterns of the Harlem nightclub set, and the frayed shawls and drab garb of the Latvian immigrants.

The lighting is also arresting. Shane Rowse's moody, suggestive colors and complex cues provide much-needed texture and nuance to a minimalist set. As the play moves through multiple settings, two wooden staircases and platforms flank an open floor where actors cart props on and off between numbers to suggest different interiors. (The alley-style seating means that almost every chair affords a sure view of the action.)

That design helps director Karen Paisley keep the focus on the show's excellent cast. Teal Holliday and Justin G. McCoy turn in stirring performances as Sarah and Coalhouse. Holliday's Sarah is captivating and vulnerable, and pensive songs such as "Your Daddy's Son" show off her clear, haunting voice and emotional range. McCoy has an aggressive stage presence and a rich, powerful voice that fills the space (and occasionally dwarfs those of his castmates in group numbers).

Robert Gibby Brand is warm and spirited as Tateh, who carves out a place in the film industry. Liz Clark Golson provides comic relief as bubbly chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, and Michael Dragen is rock-solid as Mother's Younger Brother, a budding revolutionary. (His "The Night That Goldman Spoke at Union Square" is a high point in a show full of strong voices.) The ensemble is every bit as good as the principal cast, giving full-company numbers like "Wheels of a Dream" a nearly operatic power.

The MET tempers some of the show's nostalgia with a zeal for modern staging techniques that sometimes proves a hinderance. Projections are in vogue right now, but here they feel like an afterthought. Cheesy animations of falling snow undermine what actors and lighting more skillfully suggest. Black-and-white photos of the show's real historical figures (Emma Goldman is one) pop up on screens as their corresponding characters are introduced, a move that points out the artifice in an otherwise straightforward production. And some minor sound issues (crackling speakers, microphones cutting in and out) were distractions during last Friday's show, though with a run through June 16, Paisley and her production team have time to make fixes.

None of those quibbles should deter musical fans. The MET's Ragtime is pure theatrical escape for anyone who wants to mainline earworm tunes during an infusion of buoyancy and heart.

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