The Strand Theatre is fully committed to diversity in the arts.
What better venue than the 1918 now city-owned showplace for a full-scale Hub production of the Broadway hit “Ragtime.”
Championing the struggles of blacks and immigrant Jews in pre-World War I America in the face of prejudice and based on the acclaimed E.L. Doctorow novel, the 1998 musical took home four well-deserved Tonys.
Fiddlehead Theatre Company has richly staged its season-opening edition of “Ragtime” with the support of Mayor Thomas Menino and the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Ragtime” opens with an expository that presents three distinct groups: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, African Americans and largely Jewish European immigrants. Conductor Matt Stern and a sharp 16-piece orchestra bring full flavor to the classical, ragtime and klezmer musical styles associated with the three groups.
The production focuses on the stories of representative characters – a fair-minded housewife Mother and her liberal sibling known as Younger Brother; ambitious black pianist Coalhouse Walker, his love Sarah and their Little Boy and Jewish artist turned filmmaker Tateh and his daughter Little Girl.
Along the way, their lives are affected directly or indirectly by such celebrities as Booker T. Washington, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt, J.P. Morgan and Henry Ford. In spite of bigotry, violence and even death, the show trumpets the values of understanding, brotherhood and full equality.
Fiddlehead artistic director Meg Fofonoff has captured the sweep and the majesty of this show and its timely messages with the help of a standout design team. Janie E. Howland has evoked the musical’s time period with large poster-like photos and images of the celebrities of the era.
There is a full-size Model T on stage for enterprising Coalhouse Walker. Jennifer Tremblay’s period costumes evoke the affluence of Mother’s family, the snappy outfits of Coalhouse and his entourage, and the simple work attire of the immigrants until Tateh spruces up as a hotshot new director with the name Baron Ashkenazi.
Zach Blane’s lighting captures both the promise and the peril that greet African Americans and Jewish immigrants. Anne McAlexander’s rousing choreography ranges from waltzes and high-stepping oalhouse moves to Tateh’s circle sequence with his daughter and highly animated union rallying.
Most of the characters bring similar fire to their roles. Damian Norfleet has Coalhouse’s inner rage-particularly standing up to bigoted white volunteer firefighters as well as his charisma. His exciting duet with Tia DeShazor as Sarah on the standout number “Wheels of a Dream” is a true highlight. DeShazopr sings sweetly, though she could do with more intense reactions as challenges arise.
Another is Shonna Cirone’s moving solo as Mother on the wistful “Back to Before.” Best is Adam Shapiro’s brave and resourceful Tateh -- especially as he protects and cares for his daughter.
Here his tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) becomes a metaphor for loving as father and daughter alternately drape each other in it. Michael S. Dunavant finds all of Younger Brother’s principle and adventurousness as Younger Brother, and June Baboian as Emma Goldman properly fires up immigrant workers. Greg Balla ought to be more expressive as Mother’s chauvinistic and often clueless husband Father.
Near the end, Norfleet sings a booming anthem-like Coalhouse solo “Make Them Hear You.” There may have been brief glitches with the sound system Saturday night, but Norfleet and most fellow cast members made the stage resound with the show’s always-timely demand for equal attention and true solidarity.
A “Ragtime” revival of this caliber bodes very well for the future of both the Strand and the arts in Boston.
Ragtime, the Musical, Fiddlehead Theatre Company at Strand Theatre, Dorchester, through October 7. 866-811-4111 or fiddleheadtheatre.com