It is difficult to imagine how a musical of such scope might be mounted in a relatively minuscule space — until one sees it done. Director Zeke Rettman is largely successful in capturing the various strains running through the scenario taken from E. L. Doctorow's novel that depicts a panorama of American life at the turn of the 20th century. The production doesn't quite realize the emotional power implicit in the material, however, due to the unevenness of the performances.
Three intersecting stories represent three of the ethnicities that contribute to America's melting pot. Father (Joe Montgomery) and Mother (Megan Johnson Briones) are Victorian WASPs, living in New Rochelle with their Little Boy (Michael Arnold) and Mother's Younger Brother (Aaron Jacobs). The issue of women's emancipation arises as Mother, who has been a traditional wife, begins to assert herself and sings, "We can never go back to before." Tateh (Jon Jon Briones), a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, arrives on a "rag ship" with his Little Girl (Danielle Soibelman), strives fiercely, and eventually propels himself to success. Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Kevin Yarbrough) is an African-American jazz pianist who, with his lover, Sarah (Rachae Thomas), is doomed by racism.
Although most of the voices soar, many of the characterizations are unoriginal and fail to go far below the surface. Several performances, however, deserve mention. Yarbrough, with his rich, expressive voice, is powerful and magnetic as Walker, compelling us to share his character's outrage over the injustices suffered. Thomas is fragile as Sarah and elicits genuine sympathy, but she becomes inaudible at moments, as does Josie Yount, who is a saucy and naughty Evelyn Nesbit. Jon Jon Briones wouldn't normally be taken for a Jewish immigrant, but the fervor and expanse of his emotions capture attention. There is also singularly impressive work by Amy K. Murray, who is a fiery, striking presence as anarchist Emma Goldman.
The glorious, haunting score of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens is splendidly interpreted by the 10-piece orchestra and provides a solid underpinning that propels the action. Despite its shortcomings, this production has a crowd-pleasing quality that lingers long after one leave the theatre.
Presented by Musical Theatre of Los Angeles at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Sep. 13-Oct. 5. (323) 960-1055. www.plays411.com/ragtime.