by Beverly Creasey
Just like the stereopticon at the opening of "Ragtime" which slowly focuses a photographic image of a family, this extraordinary musical manages to bring into focus the disparate images of a nation in turmoil at the turn of the century.
Life was not easy in 1900 if you weren't rich. The huddled masses who arrived at Ellis Island were not embraced, despite Emma Lazarus' poem to the contrary, nor were the African-American descendants of slavery. Children toiled in factories and disease decimated the population. And Scott Joplin invented musical rags.
This "strange, insistent" music infuses the "Ragtime" score --- music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. This is especially remarkable because it isn't a happy-go-lucky paean to "American" values. Instead "Ragtime" is a dark and melancholy mirror of a bossy, brassy nation full of its own promise and importance.
The musical concentrates on only three strands of the epic E. L. Doctorow novel. While the film (of which Doctorow does not approve) highlighted the real-life scandal of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit ---whose prominent husband killed her former lover --- the musical uses her only as window-dressing. She sings her lurid story, but we never actually see the events. Houdini, too appears and disappears from the story merely as entertainment.
Instead, Terrence McNally's book for the musical interweaves the lives of three families: the wealthy white aristocrats of the opening photo tableau, who pale in contrast to a scrappy Jewish immigrant and his daughter, and to the charismatic ragtime pianist, Coalhouse Walker Jr., his beloved Sarah, and their child.
When the blue-bloods move to a ragtime tune, it becomes a lovely waltz; when the immigrants voice their version, it's a klezmer rag; and when the African-Americans dance ragtime, it's a celebration of life. When one hundred and fifty singers fill the stage, the impact is overwhelming.
"Ragtime" owes a serious debt to "Evita" both in the staging and in the music --- Flaherty's music is a Webberish/Sondheimish mix when he departs from the rags. "Evita" fans will recognize the balcony, the crowds of desperate workers, the newspaper reporters, the tightly grouped choreography by Graciela Daniele for the haves and have-nots. Director Frank Galati even stages an ascot-like tableau from "My Fair Lady" for the Atlantic City tableau. (All of this is highly effective, I hasten to add!)
Magnificent performances crown this lavish production: Lawrence Hamilton as the doomed Coalhouse Walker, Rebecca Eichenberger as the matriarch of the wealthy white family, and Michael Rupert as the immigrant artist. All of these make this "Ragtime" rich.