E.L. Doctorow’s novel "Ragtime" makes for a first-class musical drama, thanks to Stephen Flaherty’s rag-inspired score and Lynn Ahrens’s poetic-but-functional lyrics.
The show has a massive plot and numerous characters, yet is easy to follow, is thoroughly enjoyable, and is ultimately profoundly touching.
Set in New Rochelle, N.Y., in the early 20th century, the story mixes real-life people and events with fictitious ones. Entertainer Harry Houdini, capitalist J.P. Morgan and anarchist Emma Goldman all play significant parts from the sidelines, representing the changing face of America.
Meanwhile, the story focuses on fictional characters who represent the same thing, and the musical style known as "ragtime" symbolizes change, modernization and a loss of isolated innocence. Ultra-white Father (Joseph Dellger) and prim Mother (Victoria Strong) live with their son, Little Boy (Ricky Ashley) in an ultra-white neighborhood, having little contact with the folks in Harlem or the dirt-poor Russian immigrants coming over by the boatload. When a black servant girl named Sarah (Lovena Fox) has a baby fathered by musician Coalhouse Walker (Lawrence Hamilton), the family takes her and the child in, eventually helping her to reconcile with Coalhouse.
Coalhouse and Sarah have a strong love, shattered when an act of racist cruelty leads to Sarah’s death. Coalhouse seeks revenge, and everyone’s lives are changed.
Mother and her Younger Brother (Sam Samuelson) are particularly strong characters amidst the larger-than-life historical ones. Younger Brother is a rootless young man seeking his identity, and his pursuit of vaudeville performer Evelyn Nesbit (Jacqueline Bayne) is poignant and sad, as he tries to cling to anything he can in his ever-changing world.
Mother, meanwhile, is a remarkable figure, demure and wife-ish in her behavior, yet unafraid of the societal changes around them.
The cast is excellent, and the show is virtually flawless, from music to staging to the performances. It doesn’t have the flash of "Phantom" or the name recognition of "Les Miserables," but "Ragtime" is easily as good as either of them.
I almost decided not to see this show, but I'm glad I reconsidered. There wasn't a strong obligation to review it -- it only ran for a week and was in a Salt Lake City venue, which makes it secondary in importance for our Provo newspaper -- and I had listened to part of the soundtrack once and found myself unable to get into it. Fortunately, I went anyway, and now I love the soundtrack, having seen how it all works onstage and gaining a much greater appreciation for the music.