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Culture Collision 

Ethnic groups battle and blend in a tasty Ragtime melting pot.

The Ragtime cast lift their voices in song.
  • The Ragtime cast lift their voices in song.
Caught in the gears of our daily lives, we can find it easy to forget what a remarkable social invention the United States really is. No other country has ever brought together such widely disparate ethnic and religious groups, in such large numbers, to live relatively peacefully on the same turf. At least, that was the concept.

E.L. Doctorow captured the innocence of this idea, along with its ugly dark side of bigotry and racism, in Ragtime. His novel was set at the turn of the last century and blended the stories of three groups -- WASPs, African Americans, and European immigrants -- with the dream images of the time embodied by celebrities. A few years ago, an adaptation of this grand story was assembled by Terrence McNally (book), Stephen Flaherty (music), and Lynn Ahrens (lyrics); it has all the exhilarating highs (and a couple of the lows) inherent in such epic theater.

As performed under the shared auspices of the Jewish Community Center and Cuyahoga Community College, Ragtime, the Musical is largely a genuine treat, offering the kind of sweeping imagery and large-cast singing and dancing that few theaters can mount anymore. Director Fred Sternfeld fills the enormous stage at Tri-C's Eastern Campus with a gaggle of impressive production numbers, but he's at his best conveying the small moments when two people intersect or split amid the cultural forces at work. And while it would have been advisable for the composer and lyricist to cut a couple of the numerous heartfelt (but musically redundant) ballads and bring the show in under three hours, one can't deny the captivating result.

The ambitious script focuses on three families. One, a well-to-do brood in New Rochelle, New York, considers privilege and wealth their birthright. But that bubble is burst immediately in an elegant prologue, as separate groups of Negroes and immigrants begin to share geography with the rosy-cheeked clan. We soon learn that the Caucasian daddy, dubbed Father (played with upper-crust disdain by Matthew Wright), is a run-of-the-mill bigot, not due to any mean streak, but just because that's the culture with which he's familiar. His wife, referred to as Mother, is rendered by an earnestly open-minded Maggie Stahl-Wirfel. She is a civilizing force in the family, and after she finds an abandoned black baby in her garden, she insists on giving the infant and his soon-discovered mother, Sarah, shelter in their home. The father of the child, Coalhouse Walker Jr., is a traveling ragtime piano player whose melodies happily punctuate the proceedings.

Meanwhile, the third family in this multicultural stew is represented by the Jewish immigrant Tateh and his small daughter. Once they debark in New York, Tateh tries to eke out a living cutting paper silhouettes of passersby for a nickel each. Now and then, famous and infamous icons show up to convey the zeitgeist of the era. Harry Houdini (convincingly portrayed by Robert Gibb) makes his first entrance hanging by his heels and being lowered from the flies in a straitjacket -- surely one of the more compelling entrances you're likely to see. There's also sassy showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (a thoroughly delightful Kristin Netzband), famous for being the centerpiece of "the crime of the century" in 1906, when her new husband killed the famous architect who had seduced and deflowered her.

The most telling dramatic moments, though, are delivered by Coalhouse and Tateh, the representatives of the two ethnic classes trying to forge a new existence in this rich land of promise. As interpreted by the magnetic Kyle Primous, Coalhouse is a dazzling combination of simmering sexuality and rock-ribbed pride, qualities that combine to lead him into serious trouble. His duet with Sarah, "Wheels of a Dream," is one of the more memorable tunes in a show not loaded with toe-tappers. Marc Moritz makes Tateh a fascinating combination of self-deprecating humor, naked ambition, and touching tenderness. His second-act duet with Mother, as they explore their tenuous feelings for each other through comments about "Our Children," is perfectly lovely.

Indeed, the entire tapestry of this production is so finely wrought that the clinkers fairly scream out. A supposedly funny baseball-fan scene is jammed into the second act, its irrelevancy oozing from every word. And a standoff between bomb-laden Coalhouse and his black brothers at the J.P. Morgan library is a clumsily forced way to generate emotion at the final curtain.

With the exception of those small quibbles, this is a highly polished gem that owes a debt of gratitude to the entire production team. The splendid efforts of music director David Williams, choreographer Martin Cespedes, set designer Richard Gould, and costume designer Dana Romeo are most critical to providing an enthralling evening of theater.

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