- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Set at the dawn of the 20th century, “Ragtime,” the 1998 musical based on the 1975 novel by E.L. Doctorow, tries to capture an entire nation and its brewing social problems - of race, labor and sex. It might have done the job better had it really immersed itself in that time.

The music, written by Stephen Flaherty with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, is a mix of period and modern musical theater. It would have worked better had it stuck to the ragtime, gospel and cakewalk of the times. Still, what is there is enough to give you the flavor of the period, and Terrence McNally’s expansive book offers up a troubled country trying to enjoy and make sense of itself at the same time.

The Kennedy Center has mounted an all-new production of the musical that won four Tonys, including best score and best book. Santo Loquasto and Jimm Halliday’s costumes stress the archetypical nature of each group of characters. The white family, whose wealth enables them to live in an estate in New Rochelle, N.Y., are all dressed in cream; the hardworking immigrants, who toil in the tenements of the Lower East Side, are in earth tones; the blacks, who spend their evenings in Harlem dancing to a new kind of music and dreaming of a new kind of future, wear the gayest colors of all. (Harry Houdini, one of many historical personages to appear, is the luckiest, with a clever series of period beefcake outfits.)

Mother (a beautiful and clear-voiced Christiane Noll), gardening one day, discovers a black baby buried in her yard. She’s horrified - but takes in both the child and his mother when police find the woman. Sarah (Jennlee Shallow) didn’t want to keep the baby after she was abandoned by her lover, pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Quentin Earl Darrington). She soon becomes part of the household and eventually takes Coalhouse back when he finds her and learns he’s a father.

Their happiness is short-lived, though. A group of nasty racists destroys his cherished Model T. Coalhouse is determined to get justice and seeks it at the cost of his relationship with Sarah.

Meanwhile, the immigrant artist Tateh (Manoel Felciano) struggles to make a new life for himself and his young daughter; the Latvian Jew faces his own struggles with racism in New York City, Boston and beyond.

The first act of “Ragtime” is very strong. Audra McDonald won a Tony for creating the role of Sarah, and Miss Shallow follows up that tough act with one of her own. Her powerful voice brought the house down with her rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son.” The chorus also is solid, ending the act with “Till We Reach That Day” with perfect unison breaks. James Moore’s music direction serves the show well here, although we might expect a higher level of piano playing for a musical with so much of it.

A flabby act two tries to do too much. “What a Game!” is certainly a good number, but this paean to baseball is a digression from the main narrative.

The scenic design by Derek McLane is one of the best things about this production; the four-story set made of metal railings brings to life the increasing mechanization of society and the disconnection of its people.

There’s something a little anticlimactic about watching a show with so many lines from its black characters about hoping for a brighter future here in Washington just months after the election of President Obama. As Mr. Flaherty said after a performance this weekend, “The times we’re living in are much greater than the show itself.”

★★½

WHAT: “Ragtime”

WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through May 17.

TICKETS: $25 to $90

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: kennedy-center.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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