Grapes of Rag

Ten years ago, when the only marquee Ragtime graced was the imaginary one glimmering in the eyes of its creators, the musical's current director, Frank Galati, was earning a well-deserved reputation as one of this country's most innovative, if enigmatic, showmen. An actor, director and college professor, Galati mesmerized Chicago audiences with his 1988 production of She Always Said, Pablo, in which he combined the works of three adoptive Parisian compatriots--American author Gertrude Stein, American composer Virgil Thomson and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso--into a grand spectacle that alternately enchanted and stupefied theatergoers. A couple of years later, Galati took the theater world by storm when he won two Tony awards for his highly acclaimed production of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Suddenly, Galati's specialty--adapting literature for performance--wasn't merely an elite academic exercise. As bemused Broadway and Hollywood producers quickly discovered, it could also be big business.

And as local theatergoers are bound to discover when they attend the touring production of Ragtime, a sprawling literary epic can sometimes make for glorious musical entertainment. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow and streamlined by Terrence McNally's script, Galati's latest intellectual magic show combines Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens's winning musical score, Eugene Lee's majestic scenery (the breathtaking impressionistic scene that adorns the show's mammoth curtain is worthy of Childe Hassam), and Santo Loquasto's lavish costumes. With Graciela Daniele's marvelous dances, a fine cast's first-rate portrayals and the director's own fertile imagination, all of these elements blend into a near-three-hour saga about our country's fervent turn-of-the-century years. Even though Galati's approach sometimes resembles a methodical, page-turning narrative of historical events more than a spontaneous, dramatic reenactment of our common past, the director wonderfully conveys the galvanizing forces that continue to bind and separate generations of Americans.

Appropriately, Galati's insightful production begins as a Little Boy (Nathan Keen) wanders on stage, picks up a vintage stereopticon (a forerunner of the popular View-Master) and gazes at a three-dimensional rendering of a printed scene from bygone days. As the curtain opens, a parasol- and tennis-racket-toting white family, a ragtag group of Eastern European immigrants and an upstart coterie of underclass blacks all take up separate, unequal residences at dramatically lit locations on stage, itself framed by overhanging steel girders that evoke the architectural splendor of Pennsylvania Station and Ellis Island. The nearly operatic story continues apace. We're introduced to Mother (Rebecca Eichenberger), Father (Cris Groenendaal), and Mother's Younger Brother (Aloysius Gigl). We meet silhouette artist Tateh (Michael Rupert) and the Little Girl (Amy Carrey), whom he keeps tethered to his wrist while navigating the unfamiliar and dangerous streets of New York. There's also an ivory-tickling ragtime musician, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Alton Fitzgerald White), his beloved, Sarah (Darlesia Cearcy), and their infant son. All of the characters' lives intertwine when Coalhouse and a group of Irish firemen literally cross paths--an unfortunate turn of events that causes the doomed Coalhouse to become both a fugitive from and a prisoner of the justice system that should have protected him in the first place.

Blessed with a ballet dancer's grace and a classical actor's innate command of language and character, White leads the company with a virtuoso portrayal that reaches its pinnacle in "Sarah Brown Eyes," his exquisite Act Two duet with Cearcy. As the accomplished duo's lilting voices give full expression to the most moving of the show's many anthems, our spirits soar when the two characters, tragically torn from their earthly embrace by the powerful undertow of racial discord, are beautifully reunited in a mythological castle in the air that seems the only fit place for their love.

As the upper-middle-class matron who's charged with raising the orphaned Little Coalhouse (William Booker Jr.'s broad grin on opening night melted every heart in the packed auditorium), Eichenberger's wondrously sung portrayal is an island of tranquil sentiment amid the play's otherwise tempest-tossed episodes. Until, that is, she takes center stage near the end of the drama and sings "Back to Before," a harbinger of a ballad that foretells the coming suffragette movement even as it reminds modern audiences not to repeat past mistakes. And Rupert's portrait of the itinerant sketch-pad-artist-turned-Hollywood-filmmaker ("Without art, what is our existence but chaos?" he pointedly remarks) is passionate, brave, funny and hopeful--and tinged with an accent that rightly fades as his character gradually assimilates into American society. A host of well-acted minor roles, including Gigl's idealistic brother-in-law, Allan Louis's steady Booker T. Washington, Todd Jones's venomous Fireman, Melissa Dye's bubbly Evelyn Nesbit and Bernie Yvon's bravura Harry Houdini, all lend texture, perspective and dimension to Galati's broad-brush version of the great melting pot. As one character reminds us near the play's end, it's a world full of people who, by virtue of having somehow survived their past, are unafraid of what tomorrow will bring.

Ragtime, through September 26 at the Buell Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.

 
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