Ragtime: the Musical at Miller Outdoor Theatre: A Must-See Event

The set-up:

Ragtime, the ambitious musical that mixes the broad sweep of American history at the beginning of the 20th century with a study of an upscale family coping with the changes, brings its energy, drive and pageantry to the Miller Outdoor Theatre.

The execution:

An exuberant, brilliant cast sings and dances its way onto the broad stage of the Miller Outdoor Theatre, as a tri-partite ensemble - whites, blacks and immigrants - circle each other warily, setting the stage for the conflicts to follow. The book by Terrence McNally is based on the sprawling, bestselling novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow, and weaves together the majestic and the minor, with betrayal of innocence an interlocking theme. The music is by Stephen Flaherty, and it has the driving force of America itself, filled with melody and fire, and sparkling with toe-tapping rhythms. The lyrics by Lynn Ahrens further the narrative, but fall short of wit and verve.

The racial divide between blacks and whites straddles this musical like a Goliath, as relevant today as it was in 1900. Interestingly, only the blacks seem to have the capacity to enjoy a good time, as the WASPS are too busy with commerce and the immigrants with injustice. The failure of the narrative is that it relies heavily on coincidence to tie in historical figures, so it is both a pageant and an intimate family drama, linked by chains of unlikely events.

The cast here is to a large extent teenagers and younger, and that is an advantage as their enthusiasm nails the spirit and energy of America, warts and all. The cast is as huge as their talent, so space permits naming only a few of the many gifted actors: Emily Clark plays Mother, the spine of the work and its moral compass; Austin Arizpe plays the immigrant Tateh, rising from street vendor to movie producer; Dominique Watkins plays Coalhouse Walker, jazz pianist and revolutionary; and Henry Herbert plays Younger Brother, a WASP turned revolutionary, and all are excellent, with Herbert's vocal authority ringing out. Among the cameo roles, Marc Shellum is riveting as Grandfather and JP Morgan; Katy Wiggins brings power and command to the role of activist Emma Goldman, and Justin Cook makes a memorable Booker T. Washington.

I found weak only the cameo role of Evelyn Nesbit, model and chorine at the heart of a famous murder scandal, as the director's choice to portray her as a parody of sex undermined the allure that led to murder.

HITS Executive Artistic Director JoAnne Woodard marshaled the gigantic cast through its paces with skill and pace, aided by music director Miriam Daly, and choreographer Dana Lewis keeps the action swirling. The Miller Outdoor Theatre is perfect for an extravaganza of this style and scope, the sound system is excellent, and the admission price (free) is hardly to be believed. Even harder to believe - but trust me here - is how totally convincing teenagers are in portraying adults. Costumes by Macy Perrone and makeup by Jessica Woodard help, but it is the directorial experience of JoAnne Woodard that elicits from these young men and women, and indeed many children, performances that are truly professional, with the power to enchant.

The verdict:

A musical with breathtaking ambition and scope arrives with flags flying, and brings rich entertainment and some outstanding performances, to make this a must-see theatrical event.

Ragtime: the Musical continues through April 14, presented by HITS Theatre at the Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information or ticketing, call 281-373-3386.

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Jim Tommaney