Ursula Rose

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A pared-down version of the musical set in early 20th-century New York

Change fatigue feels like a modern problem—an endless conveyor belt of technology to keep up with along with the incessant avalanche of news, politics, social responsibilities and pop culture that comes with it. But in America this breakneck rate of change is nothing new.

Consider the first decade of the 20th century: labor union revolution, women fighting against gender oppression, Black Americans seeking justice and economic freedom, immigrants seeking opportunity in a country that ground them down. Arctic exploration, the mass production of the car, the heyday of tabloid journalism and the rise of tabloid celebrity. Nowhere was this all nearer to the surface than in New York. “Melting pot” is a trite phrase now, but this was when it was invented, popularized by Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play The Melting Pot. (The more you know!)

All this history is crammed into the musical Ragtime, adapted by Terrence McNally, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty from E.L. Doctorow’s behemoth novel of the same name—expect appearances by Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, Admiral Peary and Henry Ford, to name just a few. But from this froth three central intersecting storylines arise, following a stifled upper-class wife in a WASPy suburb; an ambitious Black ragtime pianist in Harlem and a Jewish immigrant and his young daughter arriving via Ellis Island. They’re all straining at their invisible social bonds, yearning for change and learning to enact it in their own lives.

Ragtime premiered on Broadway in 1997 with a cast of nearly 50, including Audra McDonald and a young Lea Michele. It comes now to the 5th Avenue Theatre with a cast of 15. The distilled, streamlined concept is by director Peter Rothstein, who premiered this version in 2016 at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis, where he’s artistic director.

Coalhouse Walker Jr. will be played by Broadway alum Douglas Lyons; Mother, as the wife is anonymously known, by Kendra Kassebaum; and Joshua Carter plays Tateh, a Jewish artist and immigrant.

The show’s swirling chorus scenes and songs are thoughtful reminders of the way our stories are all interconnected, and the more narrative numbers are marvelously deft acts of musical storytelling. But the show’s best numbers are the heart-wrenching solos. “Your Daddy’s Son,” the lullaby Coalhouse’s lover Sarah sings to the baby she tried to abandon? Forget it. Get the tissues.

Oct. 13–Nov. 5

5th Avenue Theatre