When Tintypes premiered in 1981, Stephen Sondheim called it “just about the best show I’ve seen in 20 years.” Heady praise indeed, but as the new production by Peace College Theatre so deftly proves, Tintypes is a musical of rampant joy and boundless ingenuity. It’s been one of my personal favorites for just over two decades, but I must admit I never expected to see it done with the unalloyed brilliance on display in the Leggett Theater.

Conceived by Mary Kyte (with an assist from Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle) and featuring the great Lynne Thigpen (can she really be dead?), Tintypes sufferedunfairly, I thinkthrough comparison with E.L. Doctorow’s magnificent Bicentennial novel Ragtime. One could almost call the show the first musical based on Doctorow’s book.

Both are set in the early days of what came to be known (rather prematurely, I suspect) as The American Century. Both use that syncopated explosion once called “ragged-time” as a jumping off point. Both refract the era’s less discussed, more bitter realities through the artless optimism that greeted it. Both contain as central figures that remarkable anarchist Emma Goldman, and both look askance at the activities of that perpetual infant, Teddy Roosevelt. (As Gore Vidal reminds us, the British Ambassador once warned his superiors, “We must never forget that the President is seven years old.”) Both feature a distinctly prominent stage performer of dubious originsStanford White’s mistress Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime, Ziegfeld’s inamorata Anna Held here. And in both is the genteel noblesse oblige of the comfortable white male contrasted sharply with the experience of the Jewish immigrant, the black American, and the poor of all stripes welcomed so memorably by Emma Lazarus, if not by many of her contemporaries.

But Tintypes is less a plotted musical playas is the eventual musical based directly on Doctorowthan a kind of ragtime oratorio, a scrapbook illuminated (and just as often, unironically misrepresented) by the American popular songbook.

The canvas from which Kyte et al. took their the score is not only rich, but beautifully encapsulates the urban American experience from roughly 1890 to 1917: the parlor-safe romantic oleos of Victor Herbert are made obsolete by the “scandalous” rags of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries; the brash enthusiasm of George M. Cohan must make way for the rueful comic arias of Bert Williams; and the marches of Sousa (himself a child of immigrants) fall before the exuberant vulgarity of the “coon” song and the vaudeville turn.

The emergence of Jewish and African-American tonalities swept away the more decorous cobwebs and gave us a new music to match the changes being wrought in our formerly white breadand white-bredworld. When the Jewish composer filtered the melodic strain of black America through the klezmer-call of Eastern Europe, something new arose: a native American sound which would receive its fullest apotheosis in the songs of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. This cross-pollination, so vital to our cultural sense of self, is what Tintypes is really about.

None of this, I hope, makes Tintypes sound like some ethnographic musicological treatise, because nothing could be further from the truth. But that’s the kind of show this is: you’re royally entertained for two hours by one of the most ebullient little musicals ever created, then left to ponder the most profound questions about what it means to be an American.

Under the astonishingly inventive yet never obtrusive direction and choreography of Deb Gillingham, a protean cast of five expertly plays out all the contradictions, disparities, joys, and affirmation Tintypes bequeaths. It’s the tightest, most gifted ensemble of musical performers I’ve seen in years.

Kenny Gannon is by turns wistful, tremulous, abashed, joyous, and altogether endearing as the Chaplinesque newcomerhe even does a tiny dance of mechanized heebie-jeebies, like Charlie in the factory of Modern Timeswhose rush of immigrant enthusiasm (“I think in this place, anything is possible”) butts up against the crueler realities of the closed society. David Bartlett essays any number of impressive roles but is at his considerable best mouthing the empty jingoism of T.R., behind which lay disquieting dreams of American imperialism. (It’s no accident that his signature song is that egotist’s delight, “I Want What I Want When I Want It,” climaxed by a held “I” that threatens to go on forever.) The seemingly guileless menace lurking beneath Bartlett’s robust performance may put you in mind of another occupant of the White House, rather more recently ensconced. (For the Philippines, think Afghanistan; for Cuba, Iraq.)

Christian Sineath has a lyric soprano of uncommon beauty, but she’s equally adept at putting over a blazing vaudeville turn like the pre-feminist comic anthem “Fifty-Fifty.” And Yolanda Batts can turn her unerring melismas loose on a hymn-shouter one moment, and build Bert Williams’s “Nobody” from a disconsolate lament to a full-fledged battle cry the next, sending her intoxicated audience through the proverbial roof.

A solo nod must be given to the astonishing, infallible comic artistry of Meghan Beeler. Hers is the smallest of the evening’s singing voices, and she has a tendency to render Emma Goldman’s passionate intensity a bit shrill. But in her breathtaking comedic aplomb she is the ablest clown I’ve seen on an area stage since John McIlwee took a silly British farce by the horns during this year’s TheatreFest and wrestled it to hilarious submission.

To list the feats of zany dexterity Beeler displays would be akin to compiling a master class in physical humor. I’ll chance it, because it’s deserved: her open-mouthed, horrified reaction to T.R.’s sudden wooing of her with a buck and wing; her hilarious pantomiming with Gannon’s bemused suitor; the exuberant, shameless means by which, with an oversized hair ribbon and a single roller skate, she persistently interrupts a coloratura aria. She has exquisite facial and eye command, her timing is a thing of absolute beauty, her instinct is unerring, and her pauses triumphant. This is not the sort of thing that can be learned, and at times she seemed to me the happy love-child of Jane Curtin and Nanette Fabray. Should she persist in her stubborn pursuit of a psychology degree, I can only remark with a certain sadness that therapy’s gain will definitely be comedy’s loss.

Thomas Mauney has designed, and perfectly executed, a little marvel of a set, festooned with bunting and complete with footlights and a weathered wooden floor. Murals represent (at right) Lady Liberty and (at left) girders and a dynamo, capturing precisely the bifurcated hopes and realities the show depicts, and hemming its performers between them. Paul B. Marsland’s lighting consists of a warm, supple palette that gives the musical a glow at once idealized and sincere, while Judy Chang’s delicious costumes complete the picture, especially the stunning lavender gown with which she clothes Anna Held. The musical director, Brett Wilson, has assembled a band of uncommon versatility and expertise; if it occasionally (although never fatally) drowns out the singers, that may be a small price to pay for this much sheer, euphonious plenty.

Deb Gillingham’s staging is immaculate in every wayclean, uncluttered, swift, and brimming with invention. It’s difficult to say where her direction leaves off and her inspired choreography begins. Her sense of movement is zippy, wonderfully alive. She depicts the backbreaking, mind-numbing (and soul-stealing) nature of repetitive industrialization with piquancy and a sense of how even that contains within it a kind of musicality. Yet moments later she creates, with little more than a rubber sheath pressed into service as a steering-wheel, the uncanny illusion of an Oldsmobile filled with terrified joy-riders. The exhortations of three soapbox orators meld together, summoning up a cacophony of rhetoric turned to rhythmic expression; a challenge dance becomes a struggle for political power; and a seemingly impromptu game of musical chairs attains the quality of metaphor. I realize that these moments are scripted, but it takes a special sort of genius to pull them off with the concision Gillingham exhibits, and she does it time and again throughout this show.

It’s early in the season to say so, I know, but Tintypes may well be the show of the theatrical year. It’s going to be that tough to beat.

Peace College Theatre presents Tintypes Monday-Tuesday, Sept. 15-16, at 7:30 p.m. in the Leggett Theater at Peace College, 15 East Peace St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $10 ($5 Peace faculty and staff and all students). 919/508-2051 or e-mail kgannon@peace.edu. http://www.peace.edu/theatre/.