What is ragtime? It's not a specific meter. It can't be represented in a time signature in the same way that waltz time can be written as 2/3. Ragtime is a funked-up march, marrying the pomp of John Philip Sousa to the ragged, syncopated rhythms that rocked the red-light districts in places such as New Orleans and St. Louis at the end of the 19th century. The musical Ragtime, smartly adapted from E.L. Doctorow's novel and thoughtfully revived at Playhouse on the Square, uses these wobbling, asymmetrical sounds pioneered by artists like Scott Joplin and Ernest Hogan as a metaphor for the early 20th century, when Americans fell out of lockstep, women pressed for expanded rights, black urban culture coalesced, and immigrants from around the world made their presence felt like never before.
The musical tells three interlocking fictions that collide with the lives of historical headline-makers like the great illusionist Harry Houdini, industrialist financier J.P. Morgan, African-American political leader Booker T. Washington, vaudeville swinger Evelyn Nesbit, and socialist provocateur Emma Goldman. A white upper-class family from New Rochelle takes in a desperate African-American woman and the infant she tried to bury alive. Coalhouse Walker, an educated black musician — and father of the previously mentioned infant — becomes a terrorist after he's victimized and denied justice. A hardworking Jewish immigrant suffers in the slums before he becomes a successful filmmaker.
Director Dave Landis, who won critical praise and a few Ostrander awards when he staged Ragtime for Playhouse on the Square in 2003, weaves these complex tales together in a musical tapestry as messy and violent as the period it's set in.
"Ragtime" at Playhouse on the Square through May 29th, playhouseonthesquare.org.