‘Ragtime,’ an American Masterpiece: A Must See

“Ragtime the Musical” — it’s been called “an American Masterpiece.” It’s not hard to shout out that moniker.

“Ragtime” has everything. Unforgettable music and lyrics, drama, dance, heroes both of the strong male type and genteel women, children, good guys and bad and a message as relevant to 2023 as it is to the historical period of the early 20th century, when it takes place.

It’s about racism, yellow journalism, the one-percenters, the struggling middle class of whites, blacks and immigrants first, second and third generations. It has tear-inducing tragedy and utter joy, especially in the unexpected ending that ties everything together.

It’s very fast moving drama – with some soft romantic and some funny (baseball game) pauses. It pounces on very nuanced often poignant looks at the complex, highly diverse and assimilating society that was becoming America. And it’s all held together by the sweet, softly-swinging melodies, startling syncopation and surprising powerful beats of ragtime — a genre of music that swept the nation, roughly from the 1890s to 1910s — and played by a live, 16-piece orchestra imbedded in the scenery.

The opening of the musical introduces the audience to 33 of the drama’s most vital characters — and does it in a way that each are distinct, memorable sympathetic, easy to follow and so easy to relate to.

The cast includes some of America’s historic achievers, such as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, socialist activist Emma Goldman, Admiral Robert Peary and even master illusionist Harry Houdini. The main character — ragtime singer Coalhouse Walker, Jr. — is fictional and loosely based on Scott Joplin.

These historic figures are essential to the fictionalized dramatic account of the evolving consciousness of a slowly desegregating America. The story is told through the reactions of a nine-year old white boy who witnesses, engages, comprehends and sometimes foretells it all.

The stories from the musical, “Ragtime,” by Terrance McNally and earlier the novel by E. L. Doctorow are sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat compelling.

Almost all the dialogue is in song. The tunes by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens are composed to cling in your audio memory for days, maybe weeks after the show.

Signature Theatre’s small size leads to its brilliant minimum sets by Lee Savage that are able to depict multiple indoor and outdoor scenes with seamless transitions. The sets contrast to the luscious costumes by Erik Teague for each of the broad range of characters from gilded age descendants, black laborers and successful entrepreneurs, young adult activists and parents struggling to raise their children in a quickly changing world.

Indeed, “Ragtime” is an American masterpiece. Signature Theatre in Arlington gives it full justice. The musical runs through Jan. 7. About 2 hours 45 minutes. sigtheatre.org.

The cast of Signature Theatre’s “Ragtime,” directed by Matthew Gardiner. Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Jake Loewenthal, Bill English, Matthew Lamb, Teal Wicks and Lawrence Redmond in “Ragtime.” Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Nkrumah Gatling as Coalhouse Walker Jr. and Awa Sal Secka as Sarah in “Ragtime.” Photo by Daniel Rader.


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