Ragtime reveals how much things stay the same

The people called it “ragtime” – the music that became the hallmark of an era.

Ragtime, the music, was characterized by clear piano chords, blaring trumpets and a foot-tapping beat.

Ragtime, the era, was marked by the birth of silent movies, the heyday of vaudeville and weekends under Atlantic City lights.

Now, Ragtime is a musical – it fuses ragtime the music with ragtime the era to tell the story of this nation at the dawn of the century. It was a time when Harry Houdini wowed audiences with daring escapes, Lady Liberty welcomed the tired and poor and Booker T. Washington preached a slow-but-steady road to progress.

It was a nation teeming with hope.

Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime is the story of three families living in New York in the early 1900s. They are as different as three families could be – an upper-crust, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family from New Rochelle, a black family from Harlem and a family of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

But, they are bound by one thing: They all want to escape from the life’s trials. Fate weaves the three families together in unimaginable ways, and Ragtime masterfully tells the story of life’s twists and turns.

Ragtime does not have the epic proportions of Les Miserables or Miss Saigon – it doesn’t try to. Instead, it is the story of people. More than any other recent musical, it tells its characters’ stories, their struggles and their triumphs.

Already the winner of the 1998 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Broadway Musical and 14 Drama Desk nominations, Ragtime is a success for what it says about the American people – they constantly are striving for something better.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty have crafted an incredible score, fusing the era’s popular ragtime sounds with hopeful ballads and sweeping ensemble numbers. It is the kind of music that has the audience quietly singing along – even the ushers were humming the closing number, “Wheels of a Dream,” at the end of the night.

Spectacular sets – impressive for a touring musical – depict a Victorian house in New Rochelle, the boardwalk of Atlantic City and the gates of Ellis Island. Despite a few technical glitches in the opening night performance, the sets, props and costumes blend with the story and songs beautifully.

A fine cast can pull the worst musical away from the edge of disaster and propel the best one to spectacular heights. Ragtime’s cast does the latter. Alton Fitzgerald White as Harlem’s Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Rebecca Eichenberger as the WASP-y mother steal the show with their strong, clear voices and powerful performances.

Bernie Yvon shines as Harry Houdini, the immigrant escapist who is show’s central metaphor. Like Houdini, Ragtime’s characters are looking to break the shackles they are in before the dynamite explodes.

Michael Rupert, as the Latvian immigrant Tateh, gives a chillingly touching performance as he sings to his daughter about the life they will find in America.

Choreography is used artfully in the show to depict the uncertain relationships among the high-brow citizenry of New Rochelle, the nomad European immigrants and the denizens of the Harlem dance halls. In the opening number, the cast dances in circles, each group moving to its own beat, careful not to touch the other one.

The timeless story of American dreams is a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Tateh’s quest for a better life and a mother’s dreams of unconditional love are not so different from the pursuits of late 20th century Americans. Ragtime is as much a story of the present and future as it is of the past.

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