If racism and anti-immigrant bigotry, desperate poverty and corrupted wealth are in the headlines today, the musical “Ragtime” at the 5th Avenue Theatre is a compelling reminder that they are part of America’s DNA.
If racism and anti-immigrant bigotry, desperate poverty and corrupted wealth are in the headlines today, the 1998 Broadway musical “Ragtime” at the 5th Avenue Theatre is a compelling reminder that they are part of America’s DNA.
Based on E.L. Doctorow’s best-selling novel “Ragtime,” but a lot better than the movie adaptation, this show offers a kaleidoscopic view of urban America in the early 1900s. And this revival appears during a similar time of innovation and division in our nation.
Directed thoughtfully by Peter Rothstein, this is a leaner, less decorous take on the show than the opulent original staging. It’s set on a bare stage, apart from the chairs and a grand piano. But there’s no less drama and a full rendering of Stephen Flaherty’s panoramic, tuneful score, with incisive lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The sweeping tide of song pays tribute to ragtime composer Scott Joplin, as well as Sousa marches, parlor songs, Yiddish melodies and Broadway pizazz.
Through Nov. 5 at 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; Tickets start at $29; (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org)
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Stripping away the gloss, and reducing the cast size, also highlights the central characters. They represent threads in the American social fabric, then and now a vibrant but fragile tapestry that strains at the seams.
Blending and lifting their voices in “Ragtime”’s stunning opening number, a cast loaded with strong singer-actors serve as characters and chorus. And they guide us along the three-stranded narrative playwright Terrence McNally wrested from Doctorow’s intricate epic.
On Broadway, the irresistible opening number had three different groups (whites, immigrants and African Americans) circling each other warily as they sang in perfect harmony. But Rothstein introduces his 17-member cast in a kind of line dance that links different races and ethnicities. The gesture seems to say: We are all, and always will be, in this together (whether we like it or not).
Duane Schuler’s palette of light and shadow (occasionally splashed with color) frames and silhouettes the action against the theater’s back wall. And Kelli Foster Warder’s vivacious choreography is a lively pastiche of the cakewalk, the waltz, the turkey trot and other period dances.
The three families dominating the story are fictional and broadly emblematic as their paths intersect and merge. There’s an open-minded, white suburban matron, Mother (Kendra Kassebaum), and her conservative husband, Father (Louis Hobson). And there’s ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Douglas Lyons) and his beloved, Sarah (Danyel Fulton), along with struggling Jewish immigrant Tateh (Joshua Carter) and his little girl.
Real-life, ragtime-era celebrities show up too as movers, shakers and symbols of American success and sensation. Master magician Harry Houdini (Eric Ankrim) shares crowd-pleasing stunts. Glamour puss Evelyn Nesbit (Billie Wildrick) exploits the shooting of her architect love in a titillating vaudeville act. And the fiery anarchist Emma Goldman (Andi Alhadeff) decries the poverty and injustice that are byproducts of robber baron plunder.
The centerpiece, however, is the tragedy of the fictional Coalhouse and the (less defined) Sarah. Enacted with brash vigor and powerful pipes by Lyons, Coalhouse beams with pride and success as he cuts a rug in the jazzy “Getting Ready Rag.” He’s the embodiment of the self-made-man credo voiced by black educator Booker T. Washington.
But the piano man’s spiffy Model-T car is a magnet for racist vandals. And when Coalhouse can’t get recompense or justice, and endures a crushing personal loss at the hands of the police, his frustration explodes into armed insurrection.
“Ragtime” paints with a broad brush, at times softening the ironic stab of Doctorow’s prose. It doesn’t water down the ugliness of racism nor the tenement squalor Tateh endures. But there is a big dose of optimism in the sentimental power ballad “Wheels of a Dream.” And these diverse Americans meld into one family, in a kumbaya finale that rings of both truth and wishful thinking.
“Ragtime” should unspool like a long, seamless ribbon of song and story, and it does. The entire ensemble shines, but outstanding are Lyons; the radiant soprano Kassebaum in her portrayal of Mother’s essential warmth and decency; and the charismatic Carter, who knocks one out of the park as the rags-to-riches Tateh.