But recent years make Ragtime seem more immediate than ever, especially as interpreted by the musical version, featuring music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and a book by Terrence McNally (of Love! Valour! Compassion! fame). The beating of an African-American echoes the Rodney King tape, while the scandals underlying the song "Crime of the Century" seem even more pertinent with our fresh memories of O.J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky.
The musical form is well suited to dramatize social changes, and Ragtime, currently at the Fox Theatre, excels at indicating the sweep of history. But you don't have to spend the play thinking about how Henry Ford (staccato-voiced Jay Bodin) parallels Bill Gates. The work places three families white, black and immigrant Jew at the center of major events, and sees how their lives are affected by famous figures like Harry Houdini (Eric Olson) and Booker T. Washington (Leon Williams).
The eponymous opening number sets the tone, as we see the nameless, patrician white family in their white clothes. Nostalgically they sing, "There were ladies with parasols, men with tennis balls / There were gazebos, and there were no Negroes..." upon which a jovial group of black singers intrudes. A huddled mass of immigrants joins in the number, which culminates with each group hewing tightly together, moving about the stage suspicious of the others, an amusing, telling image of separatism.
In one of the first scenes we see two ships literally pass in the night, as the white, wealthy Father (Stephen Zinnado), on a North Pole expedition, passes the ship containing Latvian immigrant Tateh (Jim Corti). The races begin coming together when Mother (Cathy Wydner) discovers an abandoned black baby and decides to offer sanctuary to the child and his desperate mother, Sarah (Lovena Fox). She's the estranged lover of successful ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker (Lawrence Hamilton), and as Sarah and Coalhouse renew their courtship, Fox proves the production's most moving and powerful singer in songs like "Your Daddy's Son" and "Wheels of a Dream."
Mother's uptight Younger Brother (John Frenzer) illustrates how public personalities can affect ordinary citizens, as he goes from being a lovelorn groupie enamored with scandalous singer Evelyn Nesbitt (Jacqueline Bayne) to political activist, following a speech by socialist Emma Goldman (Cyndi Neal). Frenzer manages to perform forcefully while still conveying the role's nervy and anxious qualities.
Ragtime can seem plotless, but the first act accelerates with the wounded pride of Coalhouse, whose beloved Model T is vandalized by a group of racists. He finds no redress through the system, and then is horrified when Sarah is savagely beaten while trying to petition President Roosevelt. Coalhouse goes on a rampage that includes fire bombings and assassinations, and although Hamilton strikes a righteous, heroic pose and condemns an unjust system, it's hard to maintain much sympathy for such a wantonly destructive character.
The musical can suddenly shift emotional gears, going from the plights of Coalhouse or Tateh, which can approximate a home-grown Les Miserables, to far milder concerns of Mother, which can seem trivial despite Wydner's angelic singing voice. The second act dissipates the momentum of the first with its visits to baseball games and Atlantic City, and the songs sound increasingly like modern Broadway ballads. But the title song and "New Music" pleasingly and appropriately invoke Scott Joplin compositions, cleverly insinuated throughout the play.
You can call Ragtime "operatic" in that there's relatively little dialogue. The spoken exchanges generally provide simple links between the numerous songs, and usually have music playing underneath them. That becomes the production's greatest problem, as often the words and lyrics don't make it past the orchestra pit with much intelligibility. One frustrated patron even squawked "Bad sound!" during the second act. If you're not familiar with Ragtime or the period's history, you might find yourself lost during key moments. Of the individual performers, Zinnato can be the least audible.
With a cast of about 40, Ragtime has a lavish but unusual physical production, with gorgeous furnishings (especially the Model T) but no fixed set. Instead it uses backdrops, like the blueprint of the J.P. Morgan Library or blown-up photographs like New York tenement neighborhoods and the Atlantic city boardwalk. But often the rear screen is simply a cloudy sky, or left blank, with the characters thrown against them, in stark light or shadow, like emblematic, almost Brechtian figures.
Moving numbers like "Til We Reach That Day" can overcome the emotional distance of that kind of presentation, but generally Ragtime is most powerful at telling a stirring history lesson. The play has a framing device of Nicholas Boak's wise Little Boy looking at stereopticon photographs at the beginning, and reels of celluloid at the end. If the action jumped to the end of the 20th century, you just know he'd be looking at a Web Cam. At the Fox Theatre's compelling production, time in this case, Ragtime marches on.
"Ragtime" plays through April 20 at the Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree Street, with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $23-$45. 404-817-8700.
Atlanta Broadway series: www.broadwayseries.com