Ragtime Returns

11/16/2009 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

They had me with Houdini!
About a minute into the Prologue of this monumental musical, the bound escape artist upended is lowered over this sweeping tableau in three tiers: immigrants living in squalor, rich whites in suburban splendor, blacks in subterranean piano joints plunking a fresh, transgressive sound. Originally on Broadway in 1998, with book by Terrence McNally, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, Ragtime is newly relocated north from its revival at the Kennedy Center in Washington and, as directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, it is breathtaking.
As in the groundbreaking 1975 E. L. Doctorow novel on which this epic vision of humanity is based, story lines reflect the titular music's ragged syncopation as fictional characters, emblematically called Tateh, Mother, The Little Boy, interweave with the historical: Emma Goldman, Evelyn Nesbit, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Booker T. Washington, to tell the turn of the century history of America. While poverty consumes the refugee Tateh (Robert Petkoff) and his little girl (Sarah Rosenthal) on the Lower East Side, a black baby is unearthed in a garden in New Rochelle. Mother (a superb Christiane Noll) sings "What Kind of Woman," and takes the child and mother Sarah (Stephanie Umoh) in. While ordinary lives are lived this ordinary way, the country is fixated on "the crime of the century," the passion slaying of architect Stanford White by his lover's husband, and it's only 1906. The vaudeville star Evelyn Nesbit, in a career now ironically boosted by scandal, is "the girl on the swing;" staged in red velvet, the swing is a comic illusion of justice. The juxtaposition of the quotidian with tabloid news, gives Ragtime its shape and dimension, just as the props-a car, a piano-appear to be outlined cut-outs like the silhouettes Tateh sells on the street. At center is the story of race played out in Coalhouse Walker Jr.'s (Quentin Earl Darrington) infatuation with his Model-T, and secondarily, with Sarah, and his boy. Typical of many such stories in America, Coalhouse's end is sad and violent; it doesn't fit the description, and justice for all. But the narratives and high-minded music belong to a grander scheme converging in hope, represented by a single family, a mixture of all economic classes and ethnicities, a true American melting pot.
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