Marcia Milgrom Dodge's Kennedy Center revival of the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens-Terrence McNally musical is extremely powerful.
Here, the focus is tightly on Terrence McNally's characters (adapted from the E.L. Doctorow novel) and on the storyelling found in Stephen Flaherty's and Lynn Ahrens' score. The 28-member orchestra, which uses William David Brohn's original orchestrations, ably handles the score's stirring anthems, poignant ballads and rocking ragtime, and the music works well in tandem with Dodge's muscular choreography and intricate staging.
The plot focuses on ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington), who finds himself in an all-consuming quest for justice after his car is destroyed by a group of racist bigots in Westchester, where he has gone to find ex-lover Sarah (Jennlee Shallow), who has tried to leave the baby Coalhouse is unaware of in the garden of a wealthy WASP couple known only as Father (Ron Bohmer) and Mother (Christiane Noll). Their lives -- as well as Mother's Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) -- ultimately intersect with recent Jewish immigrant Tateh (Manoel Felciano), along with a variety of real-life people such as Emma Goldman and Booker T. Washington.
The production is chock full of musical highights. Shallow breaks our hearts early on with the poignant song "Your Daddy's Son," as Sarah begs her baby for forgiveness. On the stirring duet, "Wheels of a Dream," Darrington's strong, baritone voice is perfectly matched to the strength and beauty of Shallow's, and the actor's considerable onstage presence consistently gives Coalhouse a clarity and sense of purpose without stunting the character's joy of music and movement. As the story moves towards its final moments, Darrington holds the audience spellbound with "Make Them Hear You," as Coalhouse, sensing his fate, exhorts his supporters to continue their push for justice by passing on their stories to their children.
Another standout moment is provided by Noll late in the show with "Back to Before," as Mother realizes how the unfolding events have changed her forever. Noll reaches for -- and achieves -- operatic highlights here -- without losing the song's introspective element. Felciano, who gives a nuanced performance, provides considerable ethnic essence without crossing the line into parody, and his scenes with Sarah Rosenthal, the young actress who plays his daughter, are particulrly moving. Both Bohmer and Eric Jordan Young (as Washington) sing with operatic power and range.
Derek McLane fills the massive stage with a towering structure that is abstract but also highly evocative of both the era's urban style and the machinery of the burgeoning Industrial Age. Appearing as wrought-iron stairways, railings, landings and walkways, the architecture encompasses four distinct levels that provide such disparate settings as the deck of an ocean liner and Henry Ford's assembly line. Other scenic details are abstract -- from the keyless "piano" that Coalhouse pounds and tickles to the Ford Model T that ultimately propels him into tragedy.