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American Quilt

“Ragtime,” the sprawling, flawed, brilliant, somewhat improbable musical based on the book by E.L. Doctorow, simply confirms the writer’s belief that some of the best stuff in the theater is being done in the parish halls of Queens. This revival is staged by the Astoria Performing Arts Center at the parish hall of the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, a place that seems too small to hold such a work as “Ragtime” but is, in fact, the perfect venue.

The play is set in the early years of the 20th century, at a time when the musical style known as ragtime was at its height, and tries to get a grip on the welter of humanity that clashed during that period. So we have rich white folks; black folks, energetic and hopeful despite oppression; and ambitious immigrants, with glimpses of J.P. Morgan, Evelyn Nesbit, Harry Houdini, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, the director who may have created “The Little Rascals” of all things, and other worthies, all proclaiming both the greatness and the squalor of life in America. In the age of Barack Obama, one does discern a note of triumphalism.

The center of the play, if there is one, is the family made up of Mother, Father, Little Boy and Younger Brother, a wealthy bunch from Westchester who get mixed up in the affairs of musician Coalhouse Walker Jr. and his lover, Sarah, whose temporarily abandoned baby is found at the bottom of Mother’s garden. All the other action swirls, more or less, around that.

This amazing production is pretty much sung through, and Tom Wojtunik’s cast is astonishingly strong. There seem to be about 100 cast members and every one is stellar. Anna Lise Jensen brings not only her gorgeous soprano voice to Mother, but is extraordinary as her character progresses from the starchy and dutiful wife of a rich businessman to a woman more alive to possibilities — check out what happens to her at the end.

D. William Hughes is solid as Coalhouse Walker, the man who wants to do right by the woman who, unknown to him, bore his child. To do this he spends months of weekends playing ragtime piano at Mother and Father’s well−appointed home, even teaching Little Boy to play piano, until Sarah breaks down and rushes from her attic room into Coalhouse’s patient arms.

Yes, some of the plot (book by Terrence McNally, who should be given props just for keeping the action straight) is creaky and predictable. Would simply basking in the warmth of Sarah and Coalhouse’s love (or even hearing him play piano every weekend) cause Mother to unbutton? Do we really think that a black man, with fiancÉe and baby by his side, would abandon his spiffy Model T in the midst of a racist mob, warn them not to touch his ride and expect this same racist mob to obey? The only thing I could think was that Coalhouse was lucky they didn’t vandalize him (and Sarah and the baby!), much less his car.

By the way, of all the ethnic groups featured in “Ragtime,” the Irish don’t come out too well — the racist mob is made up of Irishmen, and the Irish maids who serve in Mother’s household are, well, stupid.

They’re not, however, as stupid as the flibbertigibbet Evelyn Nesbit, played with squealing happiness by Stacie Bono, with big hair straight out of a Paul Henning sitcom. Evelyn’s made quite a vaudeville career from the scandal of her husband Harry Thaw smoking her lover, the architect Stanford White, and Younger Brother (Ricky Oliver) goes to her show every night. He’s finally rewarded with a kiss for his steadfastness. Oliver is quite fine as this restless young man.

Other brilliant performances include Carmel Javaher as a fierce Emma Goldman, Janine Ayn Romano as a meltingly warm Sarah, James Andrew Walsh as the rigid Father — though he’s not too rigid, as he joins Admiral Peary on his North Pole quest and later, reluctantly, helps a grief−maddened Coalhouse.

Mark Gerrard is terrific as Tateh, who begins as a man who makes silhouettes on the Lower East side and ends up an Atlantic City director, as the movie business flourished on the East Coast back in the day. Though she doesn’t have too many lines, Jordan Bloom is touching as his motherless daughter, and Daniel Henri Luttway is splendid as the cheerful Little Boy, who has a disconcerting habit, as children do, of blurting out the truth or at least asking really inconvenient questions.

Other cast members are Richard Vernon’s crotchety, unthinkingly bigoted Grandfather, Matthew D. Brooks’ dignified Booker T. Washington, Jonathan Gregg’s Houdini, Nathan Bribsy’s J.P. Morgan, Joel Abel’s Henry Ford, Michael Edward Baker as Admiral Peary and Gabriel Rodriguez as a proud Matthew Henson, his first mate (Father, when he comes aboard, refuses to shake his hand). Shawna M. Hamic is funny as both a bewildered immigrant and Mother’s maid Kathleen, while Emily Thompson is also good as Brigit, the other Irish maid. Alex Pearlman is appropriately repulsive as Willie Conklin, one of the thugs who defaces Coalhouse’s car and sets in motion a string of tragedies. Marcie Henderson is good also as Sarah’s friend, while Tyson Jennette, Vanessa Robinson, Timothy G. Avant, Teanna Berry are also excellent as denizens of Harlem.

There’s another cast member whose name I won’t mention who shows up at the last minute, and he’s played by either Zakari Jackson or Jarred St. John.

David Withrow’s costumes are sumptuous, so well fitted to the actresses that you wonder if they’re wearing corsets beneath them. The play opens with Mother and Father parading in their finery — her delicious dress of white lace and pale lavender makes one covetous. Even the immigrants’ shawls and homespun are evocative.

Michael P. Kramer’s set design is both grand and fairly simple, with open shelving built before a huge and somewhat careworn American flag upstage. The shelves hold all sorts of stuff one would find in the early 20th century: an old sewing machine, hurricane lamps, a cradle, old books and teapots, thanks to prop master Jaime Phelps and his co−prop master Emily Gasser.

The lively live music, with Daniel Feyer on piano, Josh Johnson on woodwinds, Yury Shubov on violins, Eva Lawits on bass and Sharon Fischman on drums and percussion was directed by Feyer. The choreography, which was energetic even in a smallish space, is by Ryan Kasprzak, while Krostyn R. Smith designs the sounds. Travis Walker’s lighting is usually optimistically bright — this is America, after all — and the songs, music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, are perfectly integrated.

“Ragtime” is simply a must see. It will be at the Good Shepherd through Feb. 22.

If You Go

Ragtime

When: Through Feb. 22; Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 6 p.m.

Where: Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, 30−44 Crescent St., Astoria

Cost: $15, $18 at the door

Contact: www.apacny.org or 866−811−4111 for tickets

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