What better analogy could there be, than to refer to the domain of politics as a theater, or to call the entire world a stage? Some of history's most significant moments have famously been given dramatic form and managed to reach across time and connect with a startling immediacy to a contemporary audience.
It's entirely fitting, then, that E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime -- a brilliant evocation of the first years of the 20th century -- has been transformed into a work for musical theater. Having opened on Broadway in 1998, where it won four Tony awards, Ragtime makes its way to Spokane Tuesday for a six-day run at the Opera House.
Doctorow's intricate story structures itself around the tales of three fictional families, weaving them into a tapestry of historical facts and characters. There is an upper-class white family, secure and comfortable, but facing questions of what their role really is in the changing world around them. Into their lives comes a poor black mother, Sarah, who has been left by her lover, the Harlem ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. And from among the groups of immigrants sailing to America, a hopeful Jewish peddler arrives, determined to find a better life for both him and his daughter.
Around them all swarm more white American families and figureheads, immigrants and blacks moving from the American South. J. P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbitt and Booker T. Washington are also scattered throughout the show, emblematic of the era's change and temperament.
Within the first few minutes of Ragtime, all of these groups converge onstage for the show's title number. Emerging out of a magical stereoscope image, the groups cross paths and mingle, without ever truly coming together. Much like the syncopated, offbeat music that the show draws upon, Ragtime finds its propulsion and energy in missed connections.
That's also what makes the show so compelling. There may not be any plummeting chandeliers in Ragtime, but the image of J. P. Morgan standing on a bridge that lowers to nearly crush the immigrant workers he has built an empire upon, is certainly capable of bringing the house down. It's the type of moment that has become all too rare in the recent big-budget blockbuster world of Broadway musicals.
"I never really cared for a lot of musical theater, to be honest with you," says Lovena Fox, who plays the young black woman, Sarah. "What I really liked were those shows that touched my spirit. They made me cry; they helped me to feel something. So I'm really glad to be a part of something like Ragtime, which has an important message."
Of course, Ragtime could never succeed without engaging its audience in the delights that musical theater has to offer. Driving the shows kaleidoscopic story is playwright Terrence McNally's adaptation of Doctorow's novel. McNally skillfully manages to convey the sense of excitement that was so prevalent at the start of the 20th century, while maintaining the integrity and momentum of each intertwining plotline.
The story's era is also flawlessly evoked in the show's infectious musical numbers, written by the team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. From traditional ragtime to anthems and parlor songs, the music manages to convey the idea that progress must always go hand-in-hand with hope.
Audiences searching for a visual treat will not be disappointed either. The stylized look of Ragtime makes it one of the most distinctive stage productions in years. Actors and actresses swirl on and off the stage with precise choreography, conjuring up 20th-century images of great crowds and exciting, fast-moving machinery. The medium of film, which was also emerging at the time, plays a part in the staging as well as the story, with scenes taking place in moving silhouette, and projected images transforming the settings.
It's appropriate, then, that musical theater -- one of the great artistic achievements of the 20th century -- should bring Ragtime to the stage. The music that Doctorow drew on when writing his novel is heard. The tapestry of human experience is brought to real life. And upon that stage, audiences may witness the complexity of an era.
"It shows that in a hundred years, we really haven't come as far as we thought," says Fox. "Things haven't changed that much. And I think it's an important show to do, and I'm very grateful to be a part of it."
& & & lt;i & Ragtime runs at the Opera House Tuesday, Dec. 5, through Thursday, Dec. 7, at 7:30 pm; Friday, Dec. 8, at 8 pm; Saturday, Dec. 9, at 2 and 8 pm; and Sunday, Dec. 10, at 2 and 7:30 pm. Tickets: $15-$65. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &