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Twentieth-Century Blues

Playhouse's Ragtime is provocative but a little frayed at the edges.

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My country right or wrong." It's a sentiment you hear a lot these days from flag-waving patriots ready to shout down (or worse) those who disagree with the current administration's thuggish foreign policies and increasingly oppressive domestic agenda. We have been promised more jobs, but unemployment is on the rise. We were promised compassion, but instead we see offensive, flagrantly prejudicial commentary coming from elected officials, the very people sworn to promote equality. Freedom of expression has been challenged, and due process has, in certain quarters, been all but done away with. And in the midst of all this social unrest there are the flag-wavers singing patriotic odes and making their snarling pronouncement of blind alliance, "My country right or wrong," as if they were actually proud to embrace the possible consequences of being entirely wrong.

I bring all of this up for one reason: E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, which commingles fact and fiction to provide a snapshot of life at the beginning of the 20th century, reminds us that while we may have come a long way in the past 100 years, we haven't really changed all that much. Playhouse on the Square's production of Ragtime, a brooding musical based on Doctorow's novel and smartly adapted to the stage by Love! Valour! Compassion! playwright Terrence McNally, hits all the right notes, and whenever a character is brought down for expressing an unpopular belief or an act of unspeakable violence is committed against an African American or an immigrant Jew, there is always plenty of flag-waving to accompany it. If there is a musical for the interesting times we live in, it's Ragtime, and Playhouse very nearly gets it right.

Director Dave Landis has, with the aid of choreographer Jay Rapp, worked a minor miracle. They have staged a modern megamusical with a gigantic cast and crew in a relatively small space and without all the outlandish, over-the-top set changes we've come to expect from such extravaganzas. They have put their faith in Doctorow's powerful and upsetting but ultimately hopeful story of cultural upheaval, and for their faith they have been rewarded with a powerful, upsetting, but ultimately hopeful production that, at this past Sunday's matinee, elicited mid-song "bravos." There are awkward moments when the stage becomes so crowded that near-collisions are inevitable, and the action gets lost in the crush of bodies. And when the lights went down at the end of the first act, there was an eruption of self-congratulatory voices from backstage that completely shattered the illusion of professionalism. But these are small complaints in the light of Playhouse's achievement.

The plunking, asymmetrical rhythms of ragtime music form the base from which Ragtime's songs emerge, but for the most part the songs are closer in spirit to modern musical theater than to anything Scott Joplin ever penned, and that is a little disappointing. It's disappointing because the songs fail to distinguish themselves as songs but rather blend together in a kind of bland tapestry. Again, a minor complaint, and one that has more to do with the play than with the production. It is the content here that matters; the form is almost secondary.

Ragtime tells the story of an upper-middle-class white family from the suburbs of New York. They are untouched by the problems facing African Americans, laborers, and immigrants and allowed to practice a sort of benign snobbery. They aren't a part of the problem, but becoming a part of the solution would be unseemly. Of course, all of this changes when an abandoned black infant is discovered in the garden. Shortly thereafter the mother is discovered, and both mother and child are brought into the household. Before long, they will learn that even those whose hands are scrubbed clean and who do not involve themselves in cultural politics must shoulder as much of the blame for intolerance as the bigots who promote it.

To single out any actors for praise would be inappropriate, as this is truly an ensemble piece. The performers work together and successfully bring to life a time of unrest not that much unlike our own. It's a time when opportunity is still golden. Success in the light of overwhelming odds is still possible. But the deck is stacked against those who are perceived as physically, morally, or intellectually different from the flag-waving pack. This show may have debuted in 1996, but it could have been written yesterday. See it. Think about it. Talk about it. Then talk about it some more.

Through June 8th.

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