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Theater preview: ‘Ragtime’ joins history with musical beauty

Published: Saturday, June 1 2013 3:00 p.m. MDT

WEST VALLEY CITY — “Ragtime” is the story “of something beginning … a century spinning.”

“It was a pivotal moment in our country’s history, when things were starting to change in terms of different class structures colliding and an era of racial tensions,” says Chris Clark, who directs the Hale Centre Theatre musical. “'Ragtime’ is our story.”

The hopes of immigrants, the legacy of bigotry and the rise of a working class are silhouetted at the dawn of 20th-century American society through real and imagined characters.

“This is America’s story,” executive producer Sally Dietlein agrees. “When you weave that with the exquisite beauty of the music, it is a remarkable, almost spiritual, experience.”

“Ragtime” tells the story of three turn-of-the-century groups: African-Americans, represented by Coalhouse Walker Jr., a Harlem musician; upper-class suburbanites, as seen in Mother, the homemaker matriarch of a white, upper-class Protestant family in New Rochelle, N.Y.; and the Eastern European Tateh, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia. Struggling to find their footing in an America that is on the brink of change, they may differ by gender, skin color, religion and class, but they are not without connecting links.

These stories are conjoined with historical figures, including Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Evelyn Nesbit and Harry Houdini.

“It really is the most well-written musical I’ve ever worked with,” Clark says. “The writers who adapted the original E.L. Doctorow book give beautiful attention to each of the stories.”

Based on the award-winning novel, the musical’s script is by Terrence McNally, the playwright of “Master Class” and “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” The almost nonstop score is by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, who also wrote “Seussical” and “Once on This Island.” “Ragtime” had a 1996 Toronto premiere and then a two-year run in New York, where it was nominated for an impressive 13 Tony Awards, winning four. A Broadway revival opened in 2009 and earned seven Tony nominations.

Along with the ragtime rhythms of Harlem and Tin Pan Alley, the musical styles include bold brass band marches, period parlor songs and expansive anthems.

“Ragtime music itself is the great unifier,” Clark explains. “At the beginning of the show each of the different class structures is represented through their own style of music. But as Coalhouse introduces ragtime to all of these different characters, they all sort of adopt that music. There’s a great scene at the end where Mother and Tateh are on the beach and they hear a ragtime band march by, and they both get very melancholy because it means something to them now, which all came from Coalhouse. It’s just so genius how all the musical styles of the period brings them all together.”

If you go …

What: “Ragtime”

Where: Hale Centre Theatre, West Valley City

When: June 5-July 27

How much: $16-$26

Tickets: 801-984-9000 or hct.org

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