Putting American Dream to music Review: 'Ragtime,' the musical, sometimes outshines the E.L. Doctorow novel on which it is based. And the families of the National Theatre production are people you'll want to get to know.

May 01, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The musical "Ragtime" has been called a pageant and a tapestry, and it is both these things. But it is also something at once smaller and more grand.

It is a show about family -- and all the struggles, joys, sacrifices, rewards and heartbreaks a family entails.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel, this majestic, sweeping musical (book by Terrence McNally, score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens) is launching its tour at Washington's National Theatre.

In the grand metaphorical sense, "Ragtime" is about the family that is America, a family that is often divisive, even dysfunctional, but ultimately an amalgam of the best qualities of its disparate members. In a literal sense, "Ragtime" is about three families at the turn of this century.

The first is a prosperous WASP family, ostensibly presided over by Father, a dilettante explorer. But, when Father (portrayed by Cris Groenendaal in a manner bordering on fatuousness) sets off for the North Pole, Mother becomes head of the household.

Rebecca Eichenberger's Mother is everything America could hope for in a materfamilias. Beautiful, open-hearted and devoid of prejudice, she also has a singing voice that can be dulcet (in "Goodbye, My Love," her send-off for her husband) or boldly assertive (in her hymn of self-realization, "Back to Before").

The WASP family intersects with the show's second family when Mother discovers an African-American newborn boy buried alive in her garden. In a decisive moment that will change the lives of everyone on stage, she takes in the infant and his distraught mother, Sarah (played sweetly by Darlesia Cearcy, despite an upper register that becomes shrill when she belts out a song).

Soon the infant's father, a ragtime piano player named Coalhouse Walker Jr., shows up. But when he encounters injustice at the hands of the bigoted volunteer fire department, a beautiful love story turns into a defiant, all-out battle for fairness and honor.

Alton Fitzgerald White portrays Coalhouse in a gentler manner than his Broadway counterpart. Brian Stokes Mitchell cuts an impressively commanding figure, but White brings a youthful exuberance to the role that makes his Coalhouse more likable and less formidable. Yet there is plenty of heartfelt determination when White cuts loose with two of the show's most powerful numbers, "Wheels of a Dream" and "Make Them Hear You."

The third family consists of a Jewish immigrant father, Tateh, and his young daughter, whose experiences in their adopted country range from poverty to an American dream -- success in the motion-picture industry. As Tateh, Michael Rupert exudes decency, and his love for his daughter is stirringly palpable.

In expressing this type of emotion, the musical actually improves on Doctorow's book. An original and far-ranging novel, "Ragtime" cleverly interweaves historical and fictitious characters, but it is written in a dispassionate, third-person, past-tense style nearly devoid of dialogue.

Ahrens and Flaherty's rich, melodious score not only blends signature sounds (ragtime for Coalhouse, klezmer for Tateh), it expresses the characters' innermost feelings. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the operatic "He Wanted to Say," in which Theresa Tova's Emma Goldman -- one of the story's historical figures -- literally gives voice to Mother's speechless Younger Brother (Aloysius Gigl).

This production lacks a few elements of Eugene Lee's Broadway set design (side staircases, for example). But it retains the overall beauty of Lee's sets as well as Santo Loquasto's imaginative, lush period costumes.

Most important, Frank Galati's ingenious direction still flows cinematically (although it would flow even more seamlessly if he resisted the crowd-pleasing tendency to have solos belted out from the edge of the stage).

In either incarnation, "Ragtime" is a major musical theater achievement. If it is a tapestry, it is one made of patchwork pieces that come together to form the Stars and Stripes.

Near the end, Tateh speaks of "a dream of what this country could be." "Ragtime" is the musical realization of that dream. It doesn't merely sing, it soars.

'Ragtime'

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7: 30 p.m. Sundays beginning June 21; matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and selected Thursdays. Through Aug. 7

Tickets: $25-$75

Call: 800-447-7400

Pub Date: 5/01/98

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