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Still-Relevant ‘Ragtime’ Musical Explores History, Racial Tension

The issues that drive the revival of the 1998 Tony Award-winning Broadway production “Ragtime: The Musical,” which just wrapped an all-too-short run at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, are as relevant today as they were at the turn of the century, the era in which the play is staged.

Racism, anti-Semitism, intolerance and the WP (aka White Privilege) are all driving factors in the production by playwright Terrence McNally, with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty.

The musical styles match the time period, and including marches (a la “The Music Man”) cakewalks, gospel numbers and, of course, ragtime.

E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel “Ragtime” was the basis for the musical, which tells the story of three ethnicities in the United States in the early 20th century: African-Americans, told through the story of pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., (Chris Sams) a Harlem musician and his woman Sarah; upper-class suburbanites, represented by Mother (Kate Turner), the matriarch of a white upper-class family in New Rochelle, New York; and Eastern European Jews, represented by Tateh (Matthew Curiano), an immigrant from Latvia who comes to the United States in search of the American dream.

But apart from the memorable music, it also touches on reality with the appearance of several historical figures such as Harry Houdini, vaudevillian Evelyn Nesbit, Booker T. Washington, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Admiral Robert Peary and his African-American assistant Matthew Henson, and suffragette Emma Goldman.

The stories are riveting, but what moves the nearly three-hour production along is the music, including the moving duet by Coalhouse and Sarah singing to their infant son, “The Wheels of a Dream.”

In a nutshell, Mother finds Sarah’s baby abandoned and seeks out the mother of the child. When they find Sarah, instead of turning her over to the authorities, Mother takes in the mother and child. Eventually, Coalhouse Walker, the child’s father, attempts to find Sarah and talk to her, which he finally does. He had become successful and bought himself the latest car, the Model T Ford.

Proud of his accomplishments and his car, Coalhouse sets out to make a life for himself and Sarah, only to become the victim of intolerance as his car is vandalized and destroyed. In the mayhem that ensues, Sarah is killed, setting Coalhouse on a self-destructive path of vengeance. The last number he delivers is the show-stopper, as he belts out the anthemic “Make Them Hear You.”

Strong voices, a relevant and timely storyline and superlative costumes make “Ragtime: The Musical” a perfect outing for all ages, and in the heat of a DMV summer night, a coveted outdoor excursion. While it only played for three days, hopefully it will return to the area for a longer run.

Not to give away the ending, but the play twists and turns to result in the perfect picture of what America should be for everyone.

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