As a musical, Ragtime inevitably lacks the complexity — as well as the violence and darkness — of E.L. Doctorow's wonderful novel, but it still has a thousand times more intelligence, charm and integrity than the average musical. As written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the show is representational in style, with various members of the large cast coming forward in turn to narrate the story of the early twentieth century — and their own parts in it. The effect is panoramic, a living tapestry across which move characters both fictional and historic.
Watching this production feels a bit like the way it felt reading a pop-up storybook as a kid and losing yourself in those 3-D illustrations. You find your empathy and attention shifting among three primary storylines and from person to person; periodically, you get pulled up short by a surge of exhilaration or a moment of shock and sorrow. It helps that Ragtime's visual elements are given their elegant due at the Arvada Center through Brian Mallgrave's flexible set design and Clare Henkel's costumes. But the show has an additional element that no childhood storybook could provide: a cascade of delightfully ragtime-inflected music that's at the very heart of things and powerfully illustrates the primary themes, which have to do with the divide between black and white in America, and the way the lives of all kinds of people bump up against each other in that vital, unwieldy phenomenon of the American melting pot.
An early scene sets the tone. Father, head of a wealthy New Rochelle household, is setting out with Admiral Peary for the North Pole. As his ship sails across the ocean, it passes the overcrowded boat on which Latvian refugee Tateh is traveling to Ellis Island with his Little Girl. The two men wave to each other: Father wonders about Tateh's life, while Tateh tries to fathom why anyone would leave the golden land of hope toward which he's voyaging.
Presented by the Arvada Center through October 2, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200; moves to the Lone Tree Arts Center October 6-16, 720-509-1000, www.lonetreeartscenter.org.
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Father and Tateh represent two of the socio-cultural strands in the Ragtime tapestry. Father's household includes not only Mother, but his Little Boy and her Younger Brother. Left to manage the household by herself, Mother discovers nascent feminist impulses. And she also discovers something far more shocking: a black baby abandoned in her flower bed. She takes in both the child and his mother, Sarah, thus weaving in the third strand. Pretty soon the little boy's father, a charismatic jazz musician by the name of Coalhouse Walker, comes to call. Meanwhile, Tateh struggles to survive amid the grime and poverty of the Lower East Side — which is also the setting for Emma Goldman's impassioned speeches about justice and equality.
Historical figures appear throughout: Goldman herself, as well as showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, who pops up to sing about the murder of her lover, architect Stanford White, by her husband — because what's an American story without a sensational murder? We also meet Henry Ford, the man who revolutionized the life of American workers and whose Model T Ford plays an important role in the plot; J.P. Morgan, forerunner of today's Wall Street profiteers; and Houdini, a magician who longs for a sign that magic is real and receives it when, as he's about to leave for Sarajevo, Little Boy yells to him: "Warn the Duke." Tateh is fictional, but the formative influence of Eastern European Jews on Hollywood is definitely not.
The most interesting and deeply imagined character is Walker, with his jaunty pride and willed blindness to racism, his dignity in the face of insult, and then his violent radicalization. Understudy Tyrone Robinson took over the role when the actor scheduled to play it developed throat problems. Tall and imposing, cocky and vulnerable, he commands the stage — although his fine voice hasn't yet married entirely with that of Christina Acosta Robinson, the appealing Sarah. Megan Van De Hey, who plays Mother, is blessed with a supple, melodious voice. Wayne Kennedy is a likable Tateh. Daniel Langhoff makes Younger Brother passionate rather than deluded; he, too, is an excellent singer. So is Craig Lundquist as Father. Jolted out of his comfortable, patriarchal world, constantly searching his own conscience, Father could appear weak-willed, but Lundquist gives him dignity. As Booker T. Washington, who denounced militancy and believed blacks could advance only through thoughtful diligence, Keith L. Hatten gives this real-life character heft and dignity, creating a fitting counterpoint to fiery Walker. He sings only once, but when he does, his rich and resonant "Look What You've Done" electrifies the theater.