Danyel fulton as sarah and douglas lyons as coalhouse walker  jr. in ragtime   photo credit mark kitaoka jc6kai

Danyel Fulton and Douglas Lyons both make their 5th Avenue debut in Ragtime.

Early in Ragtime, a wealthy New York suburbanite (Louis Hobson) crosses paths with an Eastern European immigrant (Joshua Carter) and his young daughter (Tatum Poirrier). The barrel-chested captain-of-industry type, having long secured his family's fortune, just boarded an ocean liner and is about to embark on a North Pole expedition/midlife crisis. Tateh, the immigrant, approaches the American shore from his vessel with unchecked optimism, even as he is covered in rags and mourning his late wife. As the two pass ships they sing about passing ships and wonder at each other's motivations. When they bid hello and goodbye to each other from a distance, the play tells the audience, as it will many more times, that these characters are different but the same.

Later in the first act, Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Douglas Lyons), a successful Harlem pianist riding in a brand new car with his wife-to-be Sarah (Danyel Fulton) and their infant son, crosses paths with a group of unsurprisingly racist volunteer firemen who demand a toll from the black family in order to pass. When Walker Jr. leaves to find a police officer, the group vandalizes his car and defecates in the front seat. The Harlem pianist can't let this stand. Walker Jr. bought the car from Henry Ford himself, see. It was a testament to his hard work and a promise for a better life—Booker T. Washington's words on the need of patience and dignity in the black community still ringing in his ears.

5th Avenue's new production, directed by Peter Rothsteinplays out in this way—as it does in R.L Doctorow's 1975 novel and the Broadway debut nearly 20 years ago—as a broad parable on the racial divides in America during the early 20th century. These disparate-yet-intertwined experiences unfold across three character arcs: the matriarch of a wealthy upstate New York family (Kendra Kassebaum) questioning the bubble of her comfortable life amid social turmoil, Tateh's struggle to fend off starvation—let alone strike it rich—amid a labor revolt, and Walker Jr.'s realization that the American Dream does not apply to him. Around these characters, larger societal sea changes occur, contextually anchored by appearances from historical figures like J.P Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit, and Emma Goldman.

The cast of ragtime at the 5th avenue theatre   photo credit tracy martin hthacd

Tetah (Joshua Carter), and the cast of Ragtime arrive at America.

From top to bottom, the show shines in the telling of this parable, especially in its comparatively pared down execution. Ragtime is one of those names remembered for massive productions with seemingly 50,000 cast members. Here, 17 actors hold down the rapid scene changes and frequent character cameos, pushing the show forward at a breathless pace. The small cast also leads to some subtle character cross-pollination. Like when Hugh Hastings shows up as both Henry Ford and one of the racist vandals. 
 
And then there's Douglas Lyons and Danyel Fulton, both making their 5th Avenue debut as the couple Coalhouse and Sarah. Lyons oozes charisma and effortless physicality as the charming and tragic musician, switching over to simmering rage when the audience needs to believe it the most. Fulton, meanwhile, blends into the ensemble at first, until she unleashes the pipes in a first act solo that blew my hair back. And when these two duet, forget about it.
 
Ragtime is at times a hard watch in 2017. Clearly this is the point, as the racial and economic struggles of these characters feel especially urgent today. And any deep dive into the nation's history in this way highlights both our racist through-lines and the ways in which the we as a country still fall short. But it was also hard for me in a different way at first. I initially found the inherent optimism of musical theater, even when examining such subject matter, out of step with current high-stakes societal discourse (as in, the internet). This resistance to earnestness surprised me. And it felt good to give up for a few hours and appreciate 5th Avenue's production as a capable and moving iteration of an evergreen story. Not everything needs to interact with the cynicism of Trump.
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