Thinkin' man's Rag

A musical extravaganza with something to say.

Thanks to the efforts of tour producers Pace Theatrical and the Paramount Theater, the musical Ragtime has opened in Seattle despite the bankruptcy of its Toronto-based producing organization, Livent. It took some substantial cash to perform the rescue: With a cast numbering 50-plus, 25 musicians, numerous sets, a working Model T, and an antique fire truck, the show has operating costs of around $300,000 a week.


Paramount Theater, 292-ARTS

ends January 3

So what's the payoff?

Plenty. For once, all the rather vague talk about social relevance and "an important piece of musical theater" are completely deserved (unlike, say, the ridiculously overhyped Rent). This is not just spectacle, folks, but spectacle that works immensely hard to say subtle and incisive things about America's changing nature in this century.

E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime focuses on three different families: an affluent white family living in New Rochelle, an African-American couple, and a Jewish immigrant and his daughter. Historical figures such as Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, and Emma Goldman are also part of the mix. Terrence McNally's musical version follows right along, despite the technical complexity of interweaving so many narrative strands.

The affluent whites have their complacency jolted by the discovery in their garden of, first, a foundling, and then the abandoned baby's black mother, both of whom they bring into their home. When the father shows up, he proves to be the formidable Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Alton Fitzgerald White), an educated African-American musician who has big plans for his son's future. These plans, however, are derailed, by harassment from a bunch of bigoted white firemen, and by the subsequent beating to death of the mother at a political rally. Enraged, Walker becomes a terrorist, killing firemen at random and torching firehouses in revenge.

In the meantime, Jewish artist Tateh (Allan Louis) arrives in New York with his daughter and nearly starves trying to sell his work, before a chance discovery leads him on the road to prosperity. Soon he crosses paths with the white Mother (Rebecca Eichenberger) who's begun to weary of her husband's unyielding conservatism. Eventually, all three families converge into one, giving us a vision of hope that is as potent (and perhaps, as rare) at the end of this century as it was at the beginning.

The vast scope of the plot and the seriousness of the social inquiry, unfortunately, mean that you might come out of this show humming the social themes, particularly since Stephen Flaherty's ceaseless procession of ballads is a bit on the bland side. Through the medium of a gifted vocalist (such as Darlesia Cearcy as Sarah) or the sheer vocal power of the entire company, the music occasionally becomes affecting, but this is a show that's got so much moving that it doesn't really have a place for a showstopper. (One of the only songs that attempts to do so, a paean to female emancipation called "Back to Before," had the audience in fidgets.)

Considering that the American musical was originally developed on the "boy meets girl" pattern, Ragtime reveals just how far the form has come. McNally's adaptation is remarkably skillful in presenting a snapshot of the major social forces that have transformed, and continue to change, our country's ethnic and social makeup. With the increasing trend to "Disney-fy" and dumb down big shows, it's a pleasure to find one that marries consummate theatricality to intelligent thought. But then again, perhaps such unconventionality is what doomed Livent in the first place. At last year's Tony Awards The Lion King beat out Ragtime for "Best Musical."

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