At the turn of the 20th century, America burned with adolescent rage. It was a country struggling to find itself. Immigrants, African-Americans and gentrified white Protestants were thrown into the fires of capitalism and the industrial revolution. Alchemized by the forces of enormous change, they came together, banging heads the entire way, to become the century's most powerful nation.
Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, brings this turbulent era to life and compresses an entire period of antithetical philosophies, truths and sorrows into a few hundred pages of text. It's an enormous feat as is its progeny, Ragtime the Musical.
In this distilled version of the sweeping novel, creators Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens managed to recreate the epic quality of the book. They have two hours of mesmerizing music and iron-spined archetypal characters who push a nation into a passionate, if painful, embrace with its own enormous diversity.
The goose-bump-inducing title number, "Ragtime," establishes the conflict, with grand music that all but rattles the doors of Jones Hall. Santo Loquasto's costumes vividly articulate the cultural diversity of a nation on the verge of enormous change. The whites, who stubbornly cling to their ideas that "the world will stay the same," who believe that "there were no Negroes!" are dressed in diaphanous shades of cream. With parasols and top hats they stroll the pathways of insulated communities such as New Rochelle and refuse to see that the world will indeed soon "spin off its axis."
From Harlem come the muscled notes of ragtime, and with that music, the hidden "Negroes." Dressed in scarlet, canary yellow and flamingo pink, their skirts and vests sprinkled with polka dots and stripes, they push at the boundaries of jim crow laws and dance with all the electrifying energy that ragtime can inspire. Back and forth, the two communities push at each other across the stage.
Then, up through the middle, dressed in muddy grays and dusty browns, come the immigrants: the Russians, the Irish, the Italians. Their children tied at the waist, they arrive in search of the American dream and instead find the squalor of tenements and factories.
These communities are brought to dramatic life with three families. Mother (Cathy Wydner), Father (Stephen Zinnato), Son (Ryan O'Connell) and Mother's Younger Brother (Aloysius Gigl) are a white, upper-middle-class family who don't realize that the world is about to change.
Father is stuck in the past. He's an isolationist in every sense of the word. We meet him as he's setting off for the North Pole with Peary's expedition, leaving behind his family. Mother, who has been an excellent wife, wonders "how to be someone who can explore while staying" home.
During "Nothing Like the City," in which Mother, her son and an immigrant Jewish father and daughter stand together on a train station platform, Mother finds in Tateh, the father, a common heart. When her son asks why Tateh (Jim Corti) has a rope tied to his daughter (Jenell Slack), Mother explains that immigrants are afraid of losing their children. She acknowledges that she too is afraid, she's just not so "conspicuous" about it.
Tateh and his daughter struggle to eat. He's an artist who peddles his silhouettes on the street. When that fails to lead to the American dream, he tries the backbreaking work of the factories.
This struggle draws ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker (Lawrence Hamilton), a handsome, hardheaded fighter who learns how to lead his people into a collective defiance of the powers that keep them down. His sorrowful tale, filled with racial violence, forms the central conflict of the musical.
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Hamilton, as the lonesome, soulful Walker, has the voice and big, broad shoulders to carry the weight of ten musicals. The clarity and passion of his voice bring an urgency not often found on the musical stage or anywhere else. Lovena Fox, as Sarah, the mother of Coalhouse's child, is desperately moving in her solo "Your Daddy's Son."
Corti's Tateh and Wydner's Mother make a lovely pair. And O'Connell as the towheaded son who knows the future he "recognizes" Tateh, his future stepfather, on the train platform even though he has never seen him before is often hilariously funny. His timing is perfect.
This stage is so rich with gorgeous voices and breathtaking moments. This is one of those rare instances in which the play might be as wonderful an experience as the book.
Ragtime runs through August 15 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, (713)629-3700. $15--$58.75.