Onstage: An Era Exploding

Ragtime portrays the clash of cultures and races

Ragtime is an effective musical reinvention of E.L. Doctorow's complex novel about America early in the 20th century. Watching the current local staging by Jersey Productions, I was reminded of its particular power to shine a light on issues of class and race that still haunt us.

"Where's the America we were supposed to get?" someone asks. Affluent whites, aspiring blacks and struggling immigrants each have different answers, and their clash fuels the engine of Ragtime, making it relevant to contemporary American life.

That energy is reinforced by an impressive cast of 38, supported by 18 musicians. All bring passionate performances to Stephen Flaherty's powerful, soulful score and Lynn Ahrens' intense, heartfelt lyrics. A big choral presence in the stirring opener, "Ragtime," and the heartfelt "Till We Reach That Day," closing Act I, brings home the message of anxious tolerance.

Ragtime also offers strong individual performances: Ken Early's Coalhouse Walker yearns for a better future for his son ("Wheels of a Dream") and demands justice for hateful wrongs. Jennifer Scott brings a lovely strength and integrity to Mother, a woman who walks away from comfortable privilege to follow a path that's moral and redemptive; her song "Back to Before" is especially poignant. Michael Ianucci's Jewish immigrant Tateh embodies the joy of coming to America ("Success"), quickly tarnished by poverty, and the renewed hope of succeeding with ingenuity and hard work ("Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.").

Director Larry Smiglewski hasn't fully solved the challenge of presenting a show of this scale and scope on the constricted stage of Covington's Carnegie Center. The space is too small for big crowds (although Liz Vosmeier's inventive choreography, like "The Getting' Ready Rag," are delightful), and I heard people sitting to the right and left sides of the auditorium say they couldn't see action onstage. Betsy Cutler's hanging panels designating various scenes aren't enough to give the show a needed sense of place, although Sherry Amott Tippey's universally excellent costumes effectively evoke the period.

Ragtime will remind you how a musical can raise our consciousness. Grade: A-

RAGTIME, presented by Jersey Productions at The Carnegie in Covington, continues through Sunday.

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